A few weeks ago, during an early morning beach walk near the NJ State Marina in Leonardo, located along Sandy Hook Bay, the low tide was exposing a large expanse of debris and detritus from Super-storm Sandy that had been washed up from the waves.
This beach, though, seemed a little different from all previous ones that I had visited weeks after Sandy. There were more stuff on the beach. More shells, more trash, more rubble and rubbish that had come ashore. Not sure why. Identical to many other bayside beaches in Monmouth County, it too sets less than 20 miles downstream from lots of areas in New York City that got pounded from Sandy, including Coney Island, Staten Island, The Rockaways, and Broad Channel. Maybe it was due to the eddies and swirls during the storm that caused so many items to be deposited onshore here.
Oddly as well, mixed among the flotsam and jetsam and strewn randomly along the eroded beach were about a dozen dead, wave-deposited Horseshoe Crab shells. All of the shells were empty. The crabs had been long dead for days or weeks, maybe even years. Their empty shells were ghostly reminders that Sandy Hook Bay and surroundings waters are home to a diversity of sea life, including soft-tissued animals called Horseshoe Crabs.
The crabs are creepy-looking creatures when found dead. The large front shell looking something like a military helmet. Yet, only when I picked one up did I realize there was something weird attached to the shell. It was a circular, plastic white tag. What a strange find. Who placed this plastic tag on the little Horseshoe Crab?
The tag had numbers and words on it. There was a specific tag number and the words read, "U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Annapolis Maryland." There was even a toll-free number to call to report my out-of-the-ordinary find.
At first glance, it seemed like long, sad journey from Maryland to New Jersey for a Horseshoe Crab just to wash up dead. Poor little fellow.
I took some photos of the tagged shell, and then called the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. The friendly employee asked where I found the tag, the date, was the crab dead or alive when found, and near what body of water. The employee also asked for my name and address, so they could send me a certificate of participation containing information where specifically the crab was tagged.
It turns out that volunteers from all over the northeast, from Maine to North Carolina (not just Maryland) , count and tag Horseshoe Crabs. Tags are placed on adult crabs in an ongoing effort to provide scientists and policy makers information on Horseshoe Crab spawning locations and migrations patterns. Just because the Horseshoe Crab species has been around for over 300 million years doesn't mean humans know everything about its life cycle. There is still much to learn. For instance do Horseshoe Crabs return to the same beach every spring to spawn or do they seek out other sites in order to mix up the gene pool?
Each spring, Horseshoe Crabs appear on estuarine beaches in the northeast, including Sandy Hook Bay, to lay their eggs mostly in May and June, with the largest number showing up during high tides on full and new moon evenings. The larger female will come out of the water first with a male, who’s smaller, holding on to her back. She digs a hole in the sand and deposits her eggs. The male then fertilizes the eggs.
Locally, I know that for the past four years, volunteers with the Bayshore Regional Watershed Council in Monmouth County have been counting and tagging Horseshoe Crabs each spring along Raritan Bay and Sandy Hook Bay, including at Leonardo and nearby Atlantic Highlands. Perhaps the tag I found was from one of these activities.
Nearly two weeks later I found my answer. Inside a packet of information from U.S Fish and Wildlife, and written on a certificate, I was surprised to learn that the crab was not tagged in New Jersey, but across Lower New York Bay in Jamaica Bay, situated between the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens in New York City. It was tagged on June 13, 2011, by volunteers and students with Cornell University.
For many years, the New York State Department of Conservation and Cornell University Cooperative Extension's Marine Program have teamed up to count and tag Horseshoe Crabs in New York's coastal waters, including Jamaica Bay. Both organizations have worked together to develop a long running project, which has helped in the management of Horseshoe Crabs and to assess the status of Horseshoe Crabs in NY State.
So now I know. Here was just a little evidence to at least suggest Horseshoe Crabs do travel around the bay to forage for food, from New York to New Jersey and back again. Horseshoe Crabs are possibly nomads of the bay. Individuals are born to move and navigate to seek out good food and a mate to sustain the species. Undoubtedly, just offshore there's a complex estuarine ecosystem largely unknown to people, but home to a diversity of species that could care less about man-made borders. It's just one big bay, one big body of water, to many fish, crabs, and other aquatic organisms.
The need for more information goes on, especially within the busy and mysterious waters of Lower New York Bay. If you find a crab wearing a tag, please call the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and report the number, noting whether it’s dead or alive, its location and the date. Each Horseshoe Crab tag has a unique number and a phone number to call.
For me, I now make sure to turn over every Horseshoe Crab shell that I find on the beach. You never know what you may find.
More information on the federal Horseshoe Crab Tagging Program can be found at http://www.fws.gov/northeast/marylandfisheries/projects/Horseshoe%20crab.html
For more information on New York's Horseshoe Crab Monitoring network, please check out this website: http://www.ms332.macmate.me/NY_Horseshoe_Crab/Home.html
If you live in Monmouth County and wish to volunteer your time in May and June to count an tag Horseshoe Crabs in Raritan Bay or Sandy Hook Bay, please check out the website for the Bayshore Watershed Council here: http://www.restoreourbay.org/
For more information, pictures and year-round sightings of wildlife in or near Sandy Hook Bay, please check out my blog entitled, Nature on the Edge of New York City at http://natureontheedgenyc.blogspot.com/