An effort to protect horseshoe crabs from overfishing along the Atlantic coast has gotten, well, downright crabby.

Virginia has refused to lower its catch under an Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission plan that orders states from Florida to Maine to devise methods by May 1 to cut their catch and to compile data needed to assess the health of the species.

Virginia’s refusal to lower its catch by 25 percent could wipe out the conservation efforts of Maryland, New Jersey and other coastal states that have agreed to slash their harvests, fisheries officials say. “Everybody on the Atlantic coast is outraged,” said Peter Himchack, a New Jersey marine resources supervisor.

›ltimately, the U.S. Commerce Department could punish Virginia by shutting down its horseshoe crab fishery, although such a decision could be months away.

Virginia, which has the largest harvest of horseshoe crabs on the Atlantic, has argued that it cannot reduce its catch without legislative action. The General Assembly will not meet again until January, long after Atlantic coast states must act.

Virginia officials also reject the notion that conservation efforts are needed, saying there is no evidence horseshoe crabs are overfished. “We have been complaining about the lack of adequate science for some time,” said Rob O’Reilly, assistant chief of fisheries management.

Inedible to humans, horseshoe crabs have survived for 250 million years, partly because they can go a year without eating and endure extreme temperatures and salinity. They were considered the junk of the sea until recently, when it was discovered they are the most effective bait for conch. Since the late 1990s, trawlers have scooped them up in massive numbers.

Conservationists argue that the regulations, the first coastwide restrictions on horseshoe crabs, are a baby step, and they worry that a crash in the crab population would in turn decimate migrating shorebirds, which feast on the crabs’ eggs, especially in the Delaware Bay region.

As Maryland, New Jersey and Delaware began to restrict the number of crabs caught, the trawlers began unloading in Virginia, which had no restrictions. In the past two years, the catch in Virginia, known as the “loophole state” by some environmentalists, rose dramatically.

While Virginia has refused to impose the 25 percent reduction, Maryland and New Jersey have decided to go beyond the federal requirements and reduce their catches by 70 percent and 50 percent, respectively.

“Virginia would basically wipe out any of the savings,” said Eric Schwaab, director of fisheries for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

Under the reduction plan, landings coastwide would drop to about 1.8 million crabs. Virginia and other states disagree on how many horseshoe crabs Virginia should be allotted. The ASMFC plan requires Virginia to lower its catch to 152,000 in 2000. Virginia conch fishermen say that would decimate their industry. They argued the state should be allowed to catch 710,000 horseshoes.

The disparity stems from the fact each state’s allotment is based on the average catch between 1995 and 1997, before trawler captains began landing in Virginia. In 1998, more than a million horseshoe crabs were unloaded at the docks in Virginia, and 650,000 were unloaded in 1999.

“As Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey took action, that’s when Virginia saw a boom in its landings,” Schwaab said.

Virginia officials say the last two years should be included in their average catch. They also say their hands are tied because Virginia law requires that fishery management issues be based on “sound science.”

Because there are no comprehensive data indicating the crabs are in danger, legislators would have to change Virginia law to allow the state’s marine resources officials to act, O’Reilly said.