Each spring, the Delaware Bay becomes the site of one of the most spectacular and ancient phenomena in the natural world: the spawning of horseshoe crabs and the flocking of ravenous shorebirds that depend on them.
On moonlit nights in May and June, thousands of the crabs crawl ashore on Delaware Bay beaches at high tide to lay eggs, as they have for 450 million years. The crabs are sometimes so dense that the water’s edge looks like a road paved with brown shells.
A Horseshoe Crab Covered with Slipper Shells © Kathryn Marro/The Nature Conservancy
Crabs are Critical for Birds and People
Horseshoe crab eggs are critical in sustaining birds that migrate up to 10,000 miles each year. The threatened red knot, for example, flies from wintering grounds in South America to the Arctic each spring, stopping in Delaware along the way to fuel up on horseshoe crab eggs. Without the food, the red knot cannot complete its journey.
Red knots often compete with humans for the crabs. Watermen harvest horseshoe crabs to use as bait for eel and whelks. The crab is also harvested for medical use. Its blood is used to make a chemical that detects bacterial toxins.
A handful of horseshoe crab eggs, which the red knots and other birds feed on. © Erika Nortemann/The Nature Conservancy
Why count the crabs?
Some evidence suggests that the crabs are over harvested in North America, which has led to a harvesting ban in New Jersey and restrictions in Delaware. Knowing how many horseshoe crabs there are helps fisheries managers develop effective policy for managing populations.
The survey is considered the single most reliable source of information about horseshoe crabs. The crabs are counted on 23 beaches in New Jersey and Delaware each May and June. The Nature Conservancy participates in the annual census and reports its findings as part of the collective effort.
Horseshoe crab survey in progress at Big Stone Beach, Summer 2009 © Terri Tipping
Blog: Read about how red knots often compete with humans for the crabs. Watermen harvest horseshoe crabs to use as bait for eel and whelks.
Pitch In: Volunteer with the count to help scientists and policy makers better understand the population of this unique creature.