Horseshoe Crabs

Dover, Del. — It’s almost dusk at Kitts Hummock Beach, and romance is in the air.

Right where the Delaware Bay slaps the shore, thousands of horseshoe crabs are getting their groove on — shells clicking, 10 legs flailing, tails sliding across the sand — looking for the next best thing.

And this tidal pickup scene smells really, spectacularly bad.

Kelly Reavis, 36, was there to check out the action. An accountant who lives in Kitts Hummock, she volunteered for the first time June 2, a night officials said turned out to be one of the busiest and best nights for spawning this season.

Having grown up on the Delaware Bay, she barely noticed the rancid smell of briny fish decaying in the hot sun.

“What did it smell like? It smelled like dead horseshoe crabs,” she said. “It didn’t even faze me. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not.”

Reavis is one of thousands of volunteers across New Jersey and Delaware who offer to take a short training course and then spend a night walking the beach, counting horseshoe crabs.

“We have the largest spawning population in the entire world right here in the Delaware Bay, so people come from all over the world,” said Jennifer Holmes, the education coordinator at the Delaware National Estuarine Research Reserve in Dover, which organizes the survey.

“It’s almost an ecotourism kind of attraction.”

About 2,400 volunteers travel from 29 different states to take part in the survey, said Jordan Zimmerman, a fisheries biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the spawning counting program. “People get really excited about it.”

The survey occurs on 25 beaches across Jersey and Delaware on 12 nights in May and June. The nights are timed to coincide with the new and full moons, when the crabs mate.

A decade ago, New Jersey and Delaware started putting laws in place to protect the horseshoe crabs against harvesting by conch fisherman for bait. They are also sold to pharmaceutical companies, as their blood is used for medical testing.

New Jersey banned harvesting the crabs altogether, and Delaware limited the harvest to 100,000 crabs a year, said Zimmerman.

The survey, started in 1990, is done very methodically, said Holmes, the education coordinator at the Delaware National Estuarine Research Reserve in Dover.

Holmes helps coordinate and train some of the volunteers on the Delaware Bay. On this particular night, about a dozen volunteers were covering three beaches, each group armed with a headlamps, flashlights, and a specific-sized rectangle, called a “quad.”

During the training, everyone measures how many steps it takes to walk 20 meters. Then they place the quad (one meter by one meter) on the sand and start counting. First they count the males, which have rounded backs and are smaller. Then the females, who are often buried in the sand. Each group takes about 100 “quad” counts.

Zimmerman said the numbers are getting better, slowly, he said. In 1995, the average number of males found in that “quad” was 2.5. In 2007, it was 4.25, the highest since they started keeping the survey. Last year, it was 3.26.

“Statistically, that’s significant,” he said.

This year, one quad at Kitts Hummock had 19 males, but other beaches further south along Delaware Bay had zero.

Kristen Marsh, 45, and her daughter Marcella, 6, came from Vienna, Va., to Delaware looking for the spawning beaches. They’ve been trying to find the right spot for the past three years. This year they hit the mother lode.

Marsh, 45, is from Guatemala and had never seen horseshoe crabs before coming to the East Coast.

“They’re like dinosaurs — well they predate the dinosaurs!” she said, correcting her primeval timeline. “I just think they’re awesome.”

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