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Connecticut bans harvesting of horseshoe crabs, leaves medical exemptions

A tagged horseshoe crab spawns at Reeds Beach in Cape May Court House, N.J., Tuesday, June 13, 2023. (Matt Rourke/AP)
A tagged horseshoe crab spawns at Reeds Beach in Cape May Court House, N.J., Tuesday, June 13, 2023. (Matt Rourke/AP)

Horseshoe crab harvesting in Connecticut will soon become a thing of the past.

Gov. Ned Lamont signed a bill into law Wednesday banning the practice.

Lamont signed the bill at Short Beach in Stratford. The state needed to intervene to prevent wiping out a crab that has existed since prehistoric times, he said.

“This ancient species that has been around longer than the dinosaurs could be driven into extinction from overharvesting,” Lamont said.

Government officials aren’t the only ones noticing. Residents say they hardly see them anymore. Advocates and scientists say the population has a crucial role in the local ecosystem.

But while the new law will have an impact, it's going to take a while for the crab population to recover, said Sacred Heart University biology instructor Jo-Marie E. Kasinak, who also directs Project Limulus, which examines the horseshoe crab population and advocates for their conservation. Kasinak said more needs to be done to ensure their survival.

The new law mandates a ban on horseshoe crab hand harvesting, which is the manual harvesting of crabs. The law takes effect on Oct. 1. Anyone caught violating the law will face a $25 fine for each crab they’ve harvested.

But there will be exemptions made for scientific and medical purposes.

State Rep. Joe Gresko, D-Stratford, voted for the bill and said the crab population will recover with the help of the state.

“Long Island Sound used to team with horseshoe crabs when we were all younger. And nowadays, not so much. Hopefully this piece of legislation, now law, will take a step towards changing that,” Gresko said.

Horseshoe crabs can also be found in Central America, and three countries in Asia, according to Sacred Heart University. Crabs, according to Kasinak, serve a crucial function within the ecosystem. Their eggs are consumed by migratory birds and sea organisms latch on to their shells.

Horseshoe crabs are also prized for their blood, which is used to test vaccines for bacterial contamination, she said.

But Connecticut’s fishing industry harvests it for something else.

“All of the horseshoe crabs that are harvested here are harvested for fishing bait,” Kasinak said.

Thousands of the crabs are harvested every season, according to the governor’s office. The new law, she said, will help, but the crab population will take some time to recover. That’s because a crab takes a long time to mature — about 12 years for a crab egg to reach the reproductive stage, according to Kasinak.

In the meantime, crabs are scarce, and Stratford residents such as Marca Leigh are beginning to notice. She moved to Stratford 10 years ago and that’s when she saw them everywhere at Short Beach. They were in the water, and their eggs were commonplace.

But now, things are different.

“It was gradual. But especially the past couple of years, it's been really rare to find the mating pairs,” Leigh said.

It’s not all doom and gloom. Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Deputy Commissioner Mason Trumble said the fishing industry has largely cut back from harvesting the crabs over the last year. Horseshoe crab preservation has also become a bipartisan issue. State Rep. Ben McGorty, a Republican, said he was at first skeptical of the topic but eventually came around, after some nudging by Gresko.

Yet the new law is only as good as Connecticut’s neighbors, according to Kasinak.

“If we don't have protections in place and other places, while we think we're helping with crabs, it may not have as big of an impact if they're still being harvested from our neighbors.”

This story is a production of the New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by Connecticut Public Radio. 



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