In the spring of 2006, after enacting progressively more restrictions on the harvest, New Jersey passed a two-year moratorium. Delaware did the same last fall.
But Bernie's Conchs L.L.C., a Virginia seafood processor, and Charles Auman, a Delaware crabber and seafood dealer, filed suit against Delaware.
The crabs are used as bait for eel and conch, a regional fishery valued at between $11 million and $15 million annually. Most of the conch are frozen and shipped to food markets in Asia.
Yesterday, Judge Richard Stokes ruled that "the moratorium regulations do not have a rational basis in fact and are consequently invalid."
He dismissed the rationale for the moratorium - an increase in crab numbers - as "merely speculative."
He found that there was, however, a "reasonable basis" to conclude that there would be financial harm not just to Delaware's 34 licensed horseshoe crabbers but also to the 67 that are licensed to harvest eel and the 73 that hold licenses to take conch.
State officials were not available for comment last night.
Rick Robbins, owner of Bernie's Seafoods, said in a statement that he was pleased the court "understood the need to balance sensible environmental regulations with the economic realities of those of us who depend upon the resources of the Delaware Bay."
Robbins said the ruling opened the door for crabbers to harvest 100,000 male crabs - an amount approved last year by a regional regulatory agency, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The agency specified that individual states could enact stricter regulations.
Auman planned to be out crabbing today, Robbins said.
In a telephone interview last night, Robbins said the harvest was a "common-sense solution" that would not affect the horseshoe crab population.
Robbins also contended that the number harvested was less than 1 percent of the total crab population in the bay.
Some biologists have said that there are enough males to fertilize all the eggs and that removing a small number would have no effect on population growth in the bay. "There's absolutely no evidence of sperm limitation in this fishery," Robbins said.
Other biologists say there is no proof to this assertion.
Bird conservationists, who also could not be reached last night, have urged authorities to err on the side of caution, given the red knot's fragile situation. They hailed the moratorium as a crucial step in assuring that the crab population would grow and that their eggs would become more numerous on the bay's beaches, possibly helping the endangered birds to rebound.
Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or firstname.lastname@example.org.