Delaware researchers create bait designed to protect horseshoe crabs [video]

Commercial fishing operators have a new alternative to horseshoe crabs in their efforts to catch eels and whelk, a type of sea snail, off the Delaware coast.

Female horseshoe crabs are well known as the best bait to attract eel and whelk, also known as conch.  The problem with that is there are harvest limits on horseshoe crabs along the Delaware Bay.  That’s because horseshoe crab eggs provide a vital food source for threatened migratory birds.  Now, researchers have unveiled an artificial bait is designed to preserve those crabs and allow fishers to catch eel and whelk without depleting the horseshoe crab population.

The new bait uses just a fraction of the amount of real crab compared to previous fishing efforts.

Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control Secretary Collin O’Mara says this effort has been going on since the early part of the last decade.  “Conserving and restoring horseshoe crab populations is critical to supporting Delaware’s shorebird migration and implementing the vision of the Delaware Bayshore Initiative.”

University of Delaware researchers worked for years to develop the artificial bait, and based their efforts on the fact that  although eel and whelk do not usually feed on adult horseshoe crabs in the wild, they find them hard to resist when used to bait traps.  

Dr. Nancy Targett, Dean of UD’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment says the research team developed a recipe for a chemical that would mimic the scent that lures the eels to those baited crabs.  “Our hope is that this new bait will meet the fishing community’s needs and at the same time protect the horseshoe crab,” Targett said.

In addition to the chemical lure, Targett’s lab also developed an artificial bait made of compounds found in brown seaweeds and kelp.  The bait is mixed together with a small amount of ground horseshoe crab and other chemicals including baking soda and citric acid.  That mixture makes up a gelatin that can be kept for up to four days.  

The artificial bait is being produced commercially by LaMonica Fine Foods in Millville, N.J.  Researchers say field tests in the Delaware Bay have been successful so far.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal