The pickings are slim these days for those who admire the primordial, scorpion-like sea creatures that turn up on area beaches.
The dwindling number of horseshoe crabs -- a species thought to have survived for 300 million years -- was the reason Vicki Boudreau of Ansonia and about 20 other people were on the beach Saturday at Sherwood Island State Park.
Adam Rudman, an adjunct professor at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, was there with some of his students to teach them conservation efforts as they pulled two crabs from the water, poked a hole in their shells and affixed tags so researchers can keep track of their movements.
Boudreau said there were "tons" of horseshoe crabs on the beach when she was growing up, but the group only came upon those first two.
"I haven't seen one this year. Not one. It's so sad," Boudreau said.
Rudman told his horseshoe crab tagging workshop students the reasons for the decline. The crabs -- which aren't really crabs but more like a scorpion, he said -- are harvested by fishermen and used as bait in the eel and conch fisheries, he said. "Unlimited harvesting" in the 1970s and '80s, before regulations were put into place, took its toll, he said.
The living fossils also have copper-based blood with properties considered a resource by medical researchers, he said. But, despite the low sampling available to the Saturday morning beachgoers, things are looking up, Rudman said.
"Even some of the trawling data from the state shows that there definitely has been an increase. It think it's kind of stagnant now, but we're hoping it will start trending in a little upswing from all the conservation work, not just in Connecticut but the whole Atlantic coast," he said.
Rudman told his fledging horseshoe taggers that the creatures can't hurt them. If they're buried in the sand they're fine, but if they're lying upside down on top of the sand they're in trouble, as the sun and the seagulls will probably kill them.
"I would say flip them over and get them back quickly into the water. That would be ideal. But as long as they are right-side up buried in the sand they can last until the next high tide cycle," he said.
Don't pour fresh water on them since that also will kill them, Rudman said.
The tags that were put on the crabs had numbers on them. Workshop attendees were told that if they saw a crab with a tag they should write down the number and report it. They will get a certificate if they do, said Boudreau, who reports that she and her two young sons found three crabs last year.
"I'm insanely jealous," said Kathy Goldliksen, an art teacher at Park City Prep School who said a pewter pin comes with the certificate. Goldliksen said she and her daughters have looked for four years and found no crabs, therefore no certificates and no pewter pins.
They both commented on the "inquisitiveness" of 8-year-old Westporter Justin Juliano, who was first to touch a crab when it was offered.
Justin's mother, Ginger Juliano, said the boy is an "eager learner" who developed a love for the crabs when they set out to rescue the creatures on the beach.
"We did research since he has been in kindergarten," she said. "We learned that horseshoe crabs have been around since the time before dinosaurs. Even without knowing that, to me that's completely fascinating, the fact that they still exist. They were around before we were and they will probably be around -- you never know. It's just fascinating, so much to learn about them. This is just a good opportunity to interact with a program."
Justin said he pretty much knew everything about the crabs before coming to Sherwood Island on Saturday.
"I want to know how they can turn their blood into little samples and how they harvest them and catch them," he said, before darting off.
"It's a great way to spend Saturday morning, learning about our ecosystem," his mother said.