The Fish Story

Here’s Hoping We Can Help the Limulus; LBI’s Surf Bassing Has Hit the Crapper

By JAY MANN | Nov 07, 2018

Imagine enduring on Earth for some hundreds of millions of years only to suddenly be catastrophically put upon by a beast more dangerous than any of the planetary extinction events you’ve survived. Such is the plight faced by one of the more mildly beloved survivors of the seas, horseshoe crabs, aka Limulus polyphemus. Now and again, I’ll call them Limulus.

What is currently befalling their 250-million-year existence is not a pretty sight, even in oft-ugly antediluvian terms. Tons of them are annually captured, drawn and quartered, destined to be chunk bait for, of all the slimy things, eels. There’s allegedly nothing with more eel appeal than laid-asunder Limulus. Then there’s the bleeding thing, whereby generally well-meaning science types capture horseshoe crabs and manually drain 30 percent of their blood. Oh, I might add that Asian taste buds have now taken a liking to the briny eggs of spawning Limulus.

At an ecological level, all these human hankerings for horseshoe crabs fully conflict with the likes of migrating birds, notably the red knot, a widely traveled bird that must consume horseshoe crab eggs in a timely fashion or perish from a famishing 10-thousand-mile migration – made on the bird’s mere 20-inch wing span.

While none of this is overly new news, there might now be some man-made hope on the creature’s wavering horizon. But first some coolish background on the long-lingering and decidedly myserious Limulus.

MANY A MYSTERY: The mystery of horseshoe crabs begins with their very name. You could be standing among dozens of them with nary a horseshoe-shaped object in sight. They’re shaped more like – dare I say it? – a pointy-tailed flying saucer. I’m betting the Extraterrestrial Channel will surmise that the horseshoe part arrived when interplanetary visitors came upon these creatures untold eons ago. They openly called them something that, in intergalactic speak, just happened to sound like “horseshoe.” This was overheard by nearby Neanderthals, who had rushed over to the landed spacecraft to see if it was edible. The unworldly word stuck long after the inedible spacecraft took flight. Hey, I had to add some odd intrigue to the name since there is literally no earthly explanation for the whole horseshoe nomenclature thing.

As to the indispensable crab part of the creature’s name, that’s highly understandable since Limulus have clawish appendages beneath and a crabby carapace, and lurk on the bottom. In fact, most Earthlings remain fully convinced horseshoe crabs truly are crabs. Not so, though maybe it’s better to allow that off-thinking to persist since paleo-scientists have proven they’re instead closely related to spiders – a classification match no creatures want hanging over their heads, like a poised shoe. “Oh, a spider! Here, take this and smash it!”

But even in tightly webbed spider circles, horseshoe crabs are frowned upon, with their 10 legs instead of eight. What’s more, they have 10 eyes. Here again, it’s anyone’s guess as to why they need so many eyes. Maybe they just kinda collected them along the 250-million-year-old way, possibly wanting an eye for each leg. It’s a horseshoe crab thing.

Now, to one of the most astounding traits of Limulus, namely, the wildish color of their blood, which is an eerie blue. Again, when you endure that long you can damn well choose whatever color you want your blood to be.

Chemically speaking, the blue color comes from the blood’s high copper content. So, what might be the benefit of having copious amounts of copper a-flow within its body? That’s where it gets humanly fascinating – in an antibacterial way. There is something within the blue blood of horseshoe crabs that has recently attracted, amazed and even protected humans. Companies now annually extract blood from 500,000 horseshoe crabs to produce something called Limulus amebocyte lysate, used in medicine to detect bacterial endotoxins, such as E. coli and salmonella. LAL is life-savingly important during medical procedures since it forms clots around any bad-ass microorganisms, preventing them from disseminating throughout a patient’s struggling body. While the majority of crabs are returned to the water after their blood is harvested, an estimated 15 percent don’t survive.

Now, if you’re keeping track, unlucky Limulus are now routinely diced into bait pieces, drained of blood or have their eggs eaten in Asia.

Before moving to a bit of good horseshoe crab news, I’ll insert a bit of home-state pride by noting there’s one place in the world that has stepped rather boldly forth to say enough is enough when it comes to horseshoe crab abuses. Good old New Jersey has banned any and all harvesting, hands down. We had been one of the main maulers of L. Polyphemus. Locally, I clearly recall a couple dilapidated trucks, with in-kind drivers, which would annually grab them by, well, the truckload. It was an eerie sight looking into the backs of those trucks, filled to the gills with writhing creatures. Such Limulus debacles still go on in many other states.

HELPFUL HORSESHOE CRAB RANCH: This is a perfect time to head to North Carolina for a couple upbeat angles to otherwise downbeat times for horseshoe crabs. Kepley BioSystems, based in Greensboro, has devised a method of placing blood-tapped horseshoe crabs in saltwater holding ponds.

Anthony Dellinger, president of Kepley BioSystems, calls it a “recovery center.”

The center allows the involuntary blood-givers enough time to make more blood, a bit Red Cross like, in human terms. “Here’s a cookie.” Such recovery time especially helps female crabs, which can suffer reproductive problems from blood loss.

The Kepley recovery area is located on the company’s Horseshoe Crab Ranch and Blood Institute. That’s for real, by the way. You can read up on it at The ranch-of-sorts is also being prepped to raise horseshoe crabs, hoping to take pressure off natural stocks.

Why such enormous effort? It’s certainly a form of eco-kindness. Then there’s the minor detail that a quart of Limulus blood is worth $15,000 to $17,000. Whoa! And how much blood does a single Holgate horseshoe crab contain? Just wondering … in an academic vein, mind you.

But Kepley Biosystem’s coolness doesn’t end with horseshoe crab corralling. The company is devising a kill-free method of using the eel-attracting juices in horseshoe crab blood for making a fully functional semi-fake bait. I’m betting that an end to the quartering of truckloads of Limulus would rescue the species far faster than recovery ponds or horseshoe crab farming.

BAD BASSING BLUES: Our Island was once a bass fishing mecca. Hell, folks from far, wide and in between would come here to take on huge “linesiders” – to the tune of many a 50-pounder. As recently as the 1980s, our beauty of a barrier isle sizzled with stripers in the suds. Then, something fairly unfathomable happened on the way to nowadays. The beachside bass bailed, going almost instantly AWOL. Surfcasters were left in the catchless lurch.

The bad bass news is implicitly displayed in the Long Beach Island Surf Fishing Classic, which commenced in 1954. The event has never seen beachside striped bass go so utterly absent. In recent years, the entire contest can’t muster the number of fish a single day would produce back in the day. Time-wise, the problem might have begun 20 years back, give or take.

While there’s no singular explanation for the disappearance, a goodly slew of theories has been made. Jumping to many an angler’s accusatory lips is Superstorm Sandy. But she was, at most, a maybe causal factor. While she did a number on LBI, she really didn’t stir the sea in a long-term way. Many a powerful nor’easter has offered more ocean-bottom pummeling. Sandy simply didn’t change the near-shore bottom layout enough to drive away the striper biomass. In fact, the beloved gamefish had begun moving out well before her arrival. Telling weigh-in numbers, via shops and surf casting contests, indicate beach bassing had headed south a decade or more earlier. I’ll fully acknowledge that Sandy might have greatly sped up whatever evil is befalling LBI surfside bassing.

Relatedly, there’s beach replenishment. It began prior to Sandy and carries on as we speak of our striper sadness. While I can easily imagine the pumped-in sand as the coup de grâce for beach bassing, it can’t be the lone cause. Again, things began going down the bassing tubes prior to even the first pumped sand arrival.

That brings us to one of the more agreed-upon causes of our shoreline bass abandonment: the lack of close-in forage. To understand, one need only look a short distance off the beach, where boat bassers have had some of the finest spring and fall striper fishing ever. Their striper success seemingly has to do with the managerial protection of bunker, which ball up off the beach, acting as veritable pointers, indicating where trophy bass are lazily lurking below, waiting for tired or wounded bunker to separate from the bait ball. “Fishing on bunker” is now the most productive form of bassing in the state.

The nearby boat-bassing success highlights another proven and frustrating fact: The overall bass biomass, coastwide, is in exceptional shape, especially when compared to many other species that are fading fast, such as winter flounder, blackfish and weakfish – all of which are preyed upon by stripers. But that imbalance is for another day. Admittedly, there remains a glaring need to strictly preserve the lives and times of trophy breeding-stock stripers. Regs are moving in that perseverational direction.

So, the big-picture bass numbers are astronomically good yet here we surfcasters sit, barely able to catch so much as an overabundant schoolie fish, between 24 and 30 inches. Thus, we duly cycle back to a lack of near-beach forage, required to coax bass off bunker balls and into the beachline.

What’s missing on the forage front? Begin with surf clams. Right about the time surf bassing began firing blanks, we saw a downright weird, almost overnight disappearance of these huge bivalves. Even younger Islanders can recall the beaches being covered with them after bigger blows. Accompanying that surf clam showing were bass with stomachs filled with clam meat. Such a dining delight was easily enough to draw larger stripers in close. Nary a washed-up surf clam to be seen now, even after huge blows. Once again, the surf clam departure began prior to the push of big storms – and beach replenishment.

A less noticeable but equally impactful forage loss is the once ubiquitous lady crabs, a well-documented favorite foodstuff of stripers. Numerous studies have isolated crabs as the primary content in bass bellies. So, when is the last time you stepped on a lady crab in the surf? Not long ago, every bathing trip into the ocean meant a meet-up with one of those toe-grabbers. You might say good riddance, but they were a dynamic part of an essential beachline ecosystem. In the case of crabs, I can guarantee that replenishment will keep them gone and buried. What’s left to clean house on the bottom?

In desperation, one might ask about smaller forage fish along the beach, like spearing and rainfish. Works for me … but not for the bass so much. We recently had clouds of rainfish flush to the shoreline. Nary a striper on them. Maybe it was bad timing – the water being too warm for migrating stripers – or the fact these smaller forage fish are also abundant farther out. I’m betting ocean bass would prefer to stay out in deeper water, sustenance permitting.

All that said, I’ll pass on some further maddeningness for heaped-on LBI surfcasters. Just across Barnegat Inlet, within easy eyesight of Island-side anglers, Island Beach State Park has seemingly not been impacted by whatever is ailing bassing on our beaches. The stripering there is just fine.

Out of due respect for the dearly departed – and classically knowledgeable, I must pass on how the late Bill Hammarstrom repeatedly warned me that the near-in shoreline of LBI was seeing what he dubbed a “die-off.” He blamed the pour-out of freshwater from county sewer pipes. I wasn’t bold enough to openly disagree with his freshwater intrusion theory, but how can one not see he was years, make that decades, ahead in warning of a beachline die-off of some sort?

All that bemoaned, for me hope still springs infernal. I eagerly await some magical ecological rebalancing act, able to draw hungry bass back into the beachline fold. It might be a simple fix. As one angler said, “All we need are our jetties back … and make ’em even bigger.”

Comments (1)
Posted by: James Brazel | Nov 08, 2018 23:06


Excellent informative articles on two pressing subjects.

We need this kind of science-based decision-making competence, combined with the local experience examples you cite; e.g. the  "freshwater" (treated sewage ?) outfalls.

I forwarded to several friends with fishing and conservation interests.

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