Artificial horseshoe crab bait could aid migrating birds

Ben Wurst of the N.J. Division of Fish and Wildlife scrapes away surface sand while checking for horseshoe crab eggs along the shoreline in Fortescue Beach. (Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer)
Ben Wurst of the N.J. Division of Fish and Wildlife scrapes away surface sand while checking for horseshoe crab eggs along the shoreline in Fortescue Beach. (Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer) (INQ BRYANT)
Posted: June 01, 2013

For more than 15 years, University of Delaware researcher Nancy Targett has been on an odd quest to identify what it is about horseshoe crab scent that makes the crab such alluring bait - for eels and whelks.

Alas, she never succeeded. She still doesn't know what precisely constitutes eau de crab.

But this week, she and other officials announced a breakthrough that could help solve one of fishery management's knottiest problems - how to lessen the harvest of crabs to save the birds that feed on their eggs, yet still allow watermen who use them as bait to make a living.

They came up with a recipe for a largely artificial bait that uses just a tiny chunk of crab instead of the whole thing.

The new bait is easier to use than the real helmet-shaped horseshoe, requires less refrigeration, and is certainly less stinky than an old dead crab.

But it's just as effective.

In the world of shorebirds and fishing, this is big news.

The new bait is considered such a coup that it rated its own news conference Wednesday in Lewes, Del., where Targett is based.

Officials of every stripe lauded the new bait, whose development took uncountable hours by many partners, including academics, biologists, watermen, and even DuPont Co. chemists who eventually helped analyze 100 of the crab's chemical compounds.

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, who planned to attend but who had to settle for sending kudos, touted the bait as "a solution that has great economic and environmental benefits."

The crab, it turns out, exudes a scent that is a magnet for eel or whelk. One whiff - or whatever it's called if the chemical cue is under water - and they head for the trap baited with the crab.

Then, it's off to the cannery or Asian food market, where whelk and eel are deemed delicacies.

As demand for eel and whelk soared in the 1990s, the harvest of horseshoe crabs increased, reaching 2.7 million coast-wide. It has been blamed for the decline of migrating shorebirds that stop at the Delaware Bay every spring to refuel on the crabs' fat-rich eggs. One of them, the red knot, has declined precipitously since then.

New Jersey has a moratorium on the horseshoe crab harvest. This year, Delaware has an allowable harvest of 161,881 crabs, males only. Watermen have vigorously opposed the limits.

New Jersey shorebird expert Larry Niles, who did not attend the event, welcomed the new bait.

He said it would ease pressure on New Jersey officials to end the moratorium and would suggest the possibility of a coast-wide moratorium.

The formulation still requires a bit of the original recipe - actual horseshoe crab - but by tinkering and tweaking, adding seaweed, gel, and an invasive Asian crab species that's been bothersome anyway, Targett and her associates have managed to come up with an effective eel and whelk bait that requires the use of only 1/24th of a horseshoe crab.

And it can be a male instead of a female, preserving the breeding potential of a creature that lays thousands of eggs a season.

"It's been a long time," Targett, dean of the university's College of Earth, Ocean and Environment, said. "It's finished."

Conversely, it's a nice beginning for LaMonica Fine Foods in Millville, N.J.

LaMonica - "home of the hand-shucked clam," its website proclaims - is branching out.

Using the recipe Targett and her colleagues developed, LaMonica has devised a commercial version of the bait. So far, the company is calling it Ecobait - perhaps "Crabbie's Eel Elixir" didn't have the right ring.

"I just think this is a real success," said LaMonica's Michael Lavecchia, who figures that "by next season, we can be in full swing with this." He was delighted that for once, industry, environmental groups, and watermen could all be on the same side.

The researchers also released a small-batch version of the recipe. You, too, can try this at home, if you have a large blender to grind up crabs.


Contact Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147, sbauers@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @sbauers. Read her blog, "GreenSpace," at www.philly.com/greenspace

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