Stew Michels Q&A

Horseshoe crabs caught the attention of Stew Michels in the 1990’s, when government agencies, conservation organizations and the fishing industry became concerned that declining populations might be due to overharvesting. In 1997, he was on board when the states of Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Virginia pushed to develop a coast-wide Horseshoe Crab Fisheries Management Plan through the Atlantic States Fisheries Commission, an entity established by Congress to manage migratory marine species across political jurisdictions within three miles of the shoreline. More than a decade later, Stew weighs in on what he’s learned.
“Increasing crab populations are a good sign, but without good habitat they’ll be gone in a second.”

Stew Michels, Fisheries Scientist, Delaware Division of Fish & Wildlife

You’re considered a veteran of horseshoe crab management. What are you up to now?

Stew Michels:

I keep tabs on horseshoe population monitoring to see how crabs respond to various management strategies. I also serve on several committees affiliated with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, and regularly weigh in on new iterations of the Fishery Management Plan.

How’s it working out?

Stew Michels:

I think the Fishery Management Plan has met a lot of the objectives laid out in 1998. Prior to adoption of the plan, horseshoe crabs were declining and no one could agree on exactly why. States were acting in individual capacities, but lacked good information about the species life history and long-term needs. The Fisheries Management Plan helped us to focus on data needs, coordinate management, and catch up on monitoring and information collection. We know a lot more now, particularly in the Delaware Bay area.

Is there anything new to report?

Stew Michels:

Truly, it’s still early to tell anything definite. But things look promising. Over the past nine years, we’ve seen an upward trend for male horseshoe crabs, and stability for the females. Incidentally, males typically mature 1-2 years earlier than females so we hope that’s a sign of things to come. Other surveys show signs of improvement as well. I’m cautiously optimistic that results from the 2008 surveys will indicate the same.

How do these positive trends affect future horseshoe crab habitat management decisions?

Stew Michels:

We evaluate the regulations every few years. In fact, we’re currently collecting input from the public, scientists and state agencies since the most current addendum to the initial Fisheries Management Plan will expire in September 2008. Based on recent trends, it appears that the fishery is stabilizing or improving. I think we’re on the right track. We’re seeing the benefits of a coordinated management strategy.

What do you know today that wasn’t clear before?

Stew Michels:

We definitely know now that collective efforts among the member states make a big difference. Of course there is always room for improvement, which is why we continue tweaking the management plan.

What are you most excited about?

Stew Michels:

Without a doubt, I’m most excited about the development of a new, cooperative Adaptive Resource Management Model aimed at integrating and better using all the data we’ve accumulated on horseshoe crabs and migratory shorebirds over the years. While we’ve made a great deal of progress, conserving horseshoe crabs and conserving shorebirds visiting the Delaware Bay have moved largely on parallel tracks, often involving separate scientific, regulatory and volunteer efforts. This new effort will bring integration. It’s a way of looking at the situation at a multi-species level. I’m confident it will advance our efforts in amazing and exciting new ways. It will also serve as a template for the management of other species as well.

So the job of turning around the horseshoe crab fishery isn’t done?

Stew Michels:

No way! We should definitely pat ourselves on the back. But then we have to stay the course in the Delaware Bay area and continue to improve our understanding of the populations in New England and the southeast. We still have declining migratory shorebird populations and habitat that is threatened by development and other disturbances. Increasing crab populations are a good sign, but without good habitat they’ll be gone in a second. That’s why we continue working closely with state government and organizations like The Nature Conservancy to protect and where possible, set these habitats aside so that these important life cycles can continue as nature intended.


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