My memory of the bloodbath on the workboat 20 years ago, I'm happy to say, is fading. The goriest details are fading, anyway. And that's good, because I don't get queasy anymore at the mere mention of horseshoe crabs. I used to. For years afterward, the mere thought of a horseshoe crab would bring back that foggy, blood-soaked morning on a twisting creek off the Choptank River.
In pursuit of a story for the now-defunct Mid-Atlantic Country magazine, I was tagging along with a chatty, ruddy-faced waterman named Tim Morris as he harvested and rebaited his eel pots. Long before sunrise that morning we had driven to Ocean City, Md., and filled the back of Tim's pickup truck with horseshoe crabs--70 or 80 of them, maybe more, most still alive. And now, on Tim's workboat, we were winding through a maze of marshy creeks and cuts, stopping every few hundred feet to haul up an eel pot. And here's where it got grisly. After emptying the eels into a plastic drum (they would become bait for blue crabs), Tim would rebait the trap with one-quarter of a horseshoe crab. And how did he come by a quarter-crab? Simple: Every fourth pot, he'd pick up a whole crab in one hand and a machete in the other, lay the crab upside down on a table and--thwok!--chop it in half. Then--thwok! thwok!--he'd chop the halves in half. It was like something out of a Wes Craven movie. By the end of the run, the boat was literally awash in crab blood (which I'm told is blue, but thankfully I'm colorblind and was spared that creepy detail) and, because it was springtime and they were mostly females, tiny beige eggs. That afternoon it took us nearly an hour to scrub and hose down the boat. . . .
Remember what I said about the memory fading? Well, maybe not so much, come to think of it. Before I make us all even queasier, let's move on to the reason I bring this up in the first place. That would be Wendy Mitman Clarke's fascinating article in this issue about Limulus polyphemus, the strange and wonderful horseshoe crab. This truly prehistoric creature, as much a spider as it is a crab, is vitally important to both humans (its blood contains a unique biological testing agent) and to at least a dozen species of migrating shorebirds, whose very lives depend on the billions of tasty and nutritious eggs the crabs deposit on Delaware Bay beaches in the spring and early summer. Things got dicey for ol' L. polyphemus in the 1990s, a decade of enormous and potentially ruinous harvests, triggered by a demand for bait in the booming eel and whelk (aka conch) fisheries. But the news is much better lately, Wendy tells us. Nearly a decade's worth of harvest caps have had the desired effect: The horseshoe crab population appears to have stabilized, and the number of juveniles is growing--a strong indicator of future population growth.
It is an intriguing and illuminating story, as we've all come to expect from Wendy. And I assure you, unlike this column, it contains no gratuitous violence, not a single mention of crabs being hacked to pieces with a machete. That was my job. . . . You're welcome.