Male horseshoe crabs gather around an egg-laying female off Rulers Bar Hassock, a section of Broad Channel in Jamaica Bay. They are considered an easy and lucrative catch in May and June. Photo: Brian Harkin / The New York Times

3 July 2013

(The New York Times) – It sounds like something out of a James Bond movie: Lookouts. Scuba gear. Secret caches, hidden under floating docks. Horseshoe crabs.

Horseshoe crabs?

The crabs are among the incredible riches of Jamaica Bay, New York City’s wildest expanse of water, where a running battle between conservation authorities and those who would flout their rules has been going on for years. Despite the bay’s distant fringe of skyline, it is teeming with schools of striped bass, blackfish, and fluke. Crabs and clams are numerous in its reedy shallows.

For these species, and others, state and federal authorities set strict limits on how many of each an individual may catch per day — it is sometimes as little as two or three — and of what size.

And there are plenty of fishermen who try to get around those regulations and profit from an illicit catch.

“It’s a whole underground world,” said a fisherman standing outside Stella Maris Bait and Tackle in Sheepshead Bay one day recently. He declined to give his name for fear of retribution from his peers. “You go to any market, and there’s people selling fish, anytime, that’s illegal.”

“Ever see those mob movies?” he added, as whelk, also called scungilli, were unloaded nearby. “People come out of the woodwork that you’ve never seen, envelopes full of stuff, this, that, money.”

And on a recent night, a full-fledged police helicopter chase over the waters of the bay, using night-vision goggles. A New York Police Department helicopter patrol, out on a routine run from its base at Floyd Bennett Field on Memorial Day discovered four men near the shore, tossing live creatures into two flat-bottom skiffs. One boat escaped. The other, which was pursued by the helicopter, did not. Two men now have a date in federal court on charges of poaching horseshoe crabs.

“This is a game that these guys pick up over the years,” said Capt. Francisco Lopez, who heads enforcement in Jamaica Bay for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. “Cat and mouse stuff.”

But so far this year in Jamaica Bay, the mice have been many while the cats have been fewer and further between.

Sharp cuts from the federal sequestration meant furloughs this spring for the United States Park Police officers who patrol the bay, part of the Gateway National Recreation Area. Those officers are routinely called away to guard the Statue of Liberty.

State authorities have faced their own problems; Hurricane Sandy destroyed a dock used by the officers from the Department of Environmental Conservation, forcing them to keep boats many miles outside the bay.

“We’re not catching 50 percent of the people,” Captain Lopez estimated. “We just don’t have the manpower.” [more]

Poachers Are Elusive Catch in City Waters



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