Friday, August 6, 2010
New Jersey hermit crab population on the rise, beach souvenir shops in heaven
Sea Isle City, NJ--Timmy Hubert, 6, ran down aisle 4 of the Hoy's Five and Ten shop, a miniature, throwback department store, sporting flip flops and a light sunburn. Grinning from ear to ear, he came to rest at the countless cages of hermit crabs strategically placed at the store's center.
"I love these guys," said the youngster, not taking his eyes off the cages. "No T-shirts or saltwater taffy for me. I want a hermit crab. Look at them all."
Crabs in all shapes and sizes listlessly crawled across the bottom or clung, putting on a show perhaps, to the cage's wire enclosure. Last year, Hubert, at this same store, had only one cage to choose from.
Where have all the hermit crabs come from? Imported from the hermit crab belt in Southeast Asia? Though that was seriously considered at one point, the surge in numbers begins right here off the Garden State's shores.
"It's been a great year for us," said Sally Bossel, manager of the town's Hoy's Five and Ten. "We've been selling hermit crabs like crazy. We haven't been able to offer a selection like this in years. The population is booming and we still can't meet the demand."
Scientists are not exactly certain why hermit crab numbers have exploded this year. Some have linked it to the heavy winter snow, while others say high levels of raw sewage in the Atlantic Ocean caused by heavy runoff from strong spring and summer thunderstorms is the reason.
Jim Taylor and his son Harry have been in the hermit crabbing business together for almost twenty years. They use their boat, Hermit the Frog, to catch the small, shell-dwelling crustaceans in the waters off New Jersey.
"We've never had catches like this," said the younger Taylor, unloading two enormous nets from the 57 ft vessel with a dock crane near Townsends Inlet. "We are supplying tourist souvenir shops up and down the coasts of Jersey, Maryland and Delaware. We've even had requests from shops on Long Island."
There is, however, a tradeoff. With larger catches comes more casualties for crew members of the 1,023 hermit crabbing fleets of New Jersey. The state's crabbing commission reports 48 crew members have been killed and 17 maimed by hermit crabs this season, which is more than the last two years combined.
"It's not easy. We have a tough job, but someone has to supply vacationing children with pets that will soon be forgotten after returning home," said an 8-fingered Fergus O'Malley, a hermit crabber out of Strathmere, NJ. "Parents often learn the hard way that you can't flush a hermit crab down the toilet when boredom sets in."
This sudden increase in hermit crab activity off the coast has prompted the Discovery Channel to consider adding one of the state's ships to the "cast" of Deadliest Catch.
Scientists are also at a loss when it comes to explaining why such a dangerous creature in the sea, killing thousands of crabsmen annually around the world, become such docile, lovable creatures once caged and given a "home" on dry land.
"That's something we still have not yet figured out," said Hanover Schmidt, a hermit crab expert in Halifax, Nova Scotia. "We've conducted surveys, questionnaires ... everything. There is something that triggers this ferocious creature into a friendly, adorable pet. Unfortunately, our grant money may run out before we find the answer."