A Conversation with Xylia Serafy

Xylia Serafy. Courtesy photo

Ms. Serafy, who has been an environmental educator and wildlife rehabilitator with the South Fork Museum of Natural History for four years, is part of a team that launched a formal horseshoe crab survey at Havens Beach in Sag Harbor for the first time in conjunction with Cornell Cooperative Extension and the East Hampton Town Trustees. Ms. Serafy explained the importance of this surveying.

What kind of environmental significance does the horseshoe crab have in our local waters?

Horseshoe crabs are extremely important. Their eggs are huge for migratory birds that travel along the coast. It’s also important for other reptiles. Turtles, shorebirds, fish, they’re all using them as their diet because they’re so nutritious. The populations of horseshoe crabs are declining in New York for a few reasons. One is habitat loss here on Long Island, where there are a lot of beach houses being built. Overharvesting is one of the biggest issues. Horseshoe crabs are used as bait. There is a big fisheries industry for eels and whelk to send to Asia for profit. People can take up to 200 horseshoe crabs a night. When they are spawning, they are coming up in the thousands each night. It’s very easy for people to collect 200 in just 15 to 20 minutes. It’s really important for people to conserve them. Their blood is really important in science. It has a special component that will clot immediately when it comes into contact with toxins. Anything that you ever use in a hospital — a sterile needle, saline solution — all of these are actually tested with horseshoe crab blood.

What is importance of doing surveys?

For us to ever actually implement changes in catch limits and different legislation, there has to be raw data on the actual decline. The horseshoe crab has a management plan along the coast to help protect them. Fifteen states from Maine to Florida came together to create a management to plan to conserve them, reduce how many are taken and things like that. We are part of that, but we still allow the taking of horseshoe crabs. Other states, I believe, don’t allow it.

When you began surveying Havens Beach this week, what was the outcome?

We went out last [Thursday] night for our first night. Unfortunately, we didn’t end up seeing any of them. Havens Beach was a new location for us this year. While the habitat may be suitable for them, they may just end up not using the area. It’s hard to take a guess. I know other areas surveyed did end up getting a good number.

I hope you didn’t get discouraged. Will the surveying continue?

Yes, it will. The thing we try to say is even zero is still data. It’s still important to know. We had someone join us last night, John Parker, who is part of the East Hampton Water Quality Technical Advisory Committee and the Harbor Committee of Sag Harbor, who lives near that area and said historically he would see a lot of horseshoe crabs. We know historically they were there, but it could be they just aren’t there yet. We survey during the new moon and the full moon of May and June — potentially into the first week or two of July — but as of now it’s 12 survey nights when the tide comes up the highest, which is important for them for spawning.

Where else are you surveying and what have the results been?

We have four sites total, two in Northwest Harbor, one in Napeague Harbor and our Havens Beach site. At Northwest Harbor they counted seven last night. Cedar Point County Park counted three horseshoe crabs. It is just kind of the beginning of the season, so we hope in a few weeks we’ll see larger numbers.

Local people can volunteer to help with horseshoe crab surveying by calling the South Fork Museum of Natural History at (631) 537-9735 or emailing sofo@hamptons.com. Bring your own boots, dress for the weather and get ready to walk the beach counting horseshoe crabs.