Trail of horseshoe crabs lead Chilmark police to fisheries violations

Horseshoe crabs are a popular conch bait but may not be harvested during their peak spawning cycles.

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Chilmark and State Police released more than 200 horseshoe crabs taken illegally back into the ocean. – Environmental Police

Initially, Chilmark Police Chief Brian Cioffi did not know what to make of a text message he received about 6:30 am Monday, alerting him to the fact that horseshoe crabs were on North Road and Flanders Lane. “It was just an FYI” to him, Chief Cioffi said.

The Atlantic horseshoe crab, which has a natural-history lineage dating back about 450 million years, is highly prized by conch fishermen for bait, and by the biomedical research industry, which collects about one-third of each crab’s blood before releasing it. Chief Cioffi suspected a fisherman was collecting crabs in Menemsha Pond. He checked the state regulations, and learned that Monday and the previous four days, the pond was closed to harvest.

Crabs come ashore to spawn primarily around full and new moons in spring, mating and laying eggs near the wrack line in shallow water, making them vulnerable to overfishing. Although horseshoe crabs lay about 80,000 eggs per female — essential food for migrating shore birds — overharvest has led to a decline in numbers in some regions, and to fishing restrictions.

Despite the crabs’ likely destiny as conch bait, the fact that that they had just been left along the roadway really irked the Chilmark police chief. “I was disappointed at the fact that he knew he dropped them and didn’t even show enough respect for them to go back and pick them up,” he said. “Another citizen went and picked up all the crabs scattered along North Road and Flanders Lane and returned them to the ocean” — about 30 horseshoe crabs in all.

Chief Cioffi said Chilmark residents take fisheries seriously: “We are a commercial fishing village, and to sustain commercial fishing, you also have to manage the resources you have. You can’t overfish something and expect it to be there next year; you can’t mismanage what you’re doing.”

Chief Cioffi asked Officer Jesse Burton to follow up to see if they might identify who was responsible. There was one problem. Local police cannot enforce state fisheries regulations pertaining to horseshoe crabs.

Chief Cioffi contacted Environmental Police Lieutenant Matt Bass, who was previously assigned to the Island, to let him know about the situation, and he reached out to the State Police, who do have jurisdiction. Officer Robert Branca, the duty trooper that evening, said he would be happy to assist.

That evening, Officer Burton, who was keeping watch off Flanders Lane, saw an individual harvesting horseshoe crabs. When Chief Cioffi and Trooper Branca arrived, they found Mitchell Pachico of Vineyard Haven, 27, harvesting crabs from a small rowboat. “We ended up releasing 229 horseshoes back into the water,” Chief Cioffi said.

Mr. Pachico was cooperative and apologetic, Chief Cioffi said. He told the officers that he had received misinformation and thought the season was open.

On Wednesday, Mr. Pachico was out fishing and could not be reached for comment. His father, Glenn Pachico, a longtime commercial fisherman, told The Times that his son has been a fisherman “since the day he was born,” and feels bad about what happened. “He’s a good kid; he works hard in a tough business, and he was excited and he made a mistake,” Glenn Pachico said.

State regulations prohibit the harvesting of horseshoe crabs during specific periods linked to phases of the moon when the crabs are most vulnerable to overfishing.

The fishery was closed May 19-23, and will be closed again June 2-6 and June 18-22. Lieut. Bass said the dates are selected for the specific purpose of protecting the stocks because the crabs come close to shore, making them particularly vulnerable to overfishing.

Lieutenant Bass said the Environmental Police rely on local assistance. “The fact that Chief Cioffi took the time to look into this fishery violation and then instructed his officers to keep a watchful eye was invaluable,” he said.

Lieut. Bass said he will issue Mr. Pachico citations for harvesting horseshoe crabs on closed days and for fishing without the required permit.

Environmental Police Major Pat Moran commended the action of Chief Cioffi and his officers. He emphasized that the Environmental Police are protecting the natural resources that responsible commercial fishermen rely on for their livelihoods, and benefit all citizens.