We have a moral duty, and a legal responsibility, to handle horseshoe crabs with care.
I have been a commercial fisherman in South Carolina since the 1970s. Throughout the year I haul in blue crab, shrimp, stone crab claws, soft shell crabs, and occasionally octopus, but you could say my top priority is the horseshoe crab, a sea creature of little interest in culinary circles but uniquely valuable to biomedical research.
Horseshoe crabs spend most of their time in the ocean. But in late April, these prehistoric-looking invertebrates with their hard exoskeletons and long tails start venturing onto Atlantic Coast beaches to spawn. In my case that’s Beaufort, which lies between Charleston and Savannah. The spawning season generally continues through June.
During the mating season, my crew harvests hundreds of horseshoe crabs so laboratories can collect a small percentage of their blood, and then we return the crabs, alive, to their natural habitat.
Why do we participate in these marine blood drives? Because the distinctive blue blood of the horseshoe crab blood contains a vital extract known as Limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL) that biopharmaceutical manufacturers rely on to ensure vaccines and medical equipment are free of bacterial contamination.
Fishermen—or waterman as we are called—got intimately involved in this process about 35 years ago, after the US Food and Drug Administration approved the LAL test to screen for endotoxins. Until that point, those of us making a living on the sea found horseshoe crabs a bit of an occupational hazard, a nuisance. Their large bodies got tangled up in our nets and interfered with our daily hauls, and fish markets had no interest in them.
But thanks to a growing body of research over LAL, which you can learn more about here, and in the video below, our attitudes changed, and we began to see that these creatures had value.
Endotoxins are ubiquitous in nature and can trigger severe inflammatory fever reactions in patients. The good news is that in much the same way that many patients benefit when we donate blood and go back to our daily lives, so also bleeding the crabs provides LAL for the patients’ benefit, and allows them to return to the wild unharmed.
It’s the noblest kind of fishing we do, and we have a moral duty, and a legal responsibility, to handle horseshoe crabs with care. Instead of catching and eating the crabs, we bring them in, clean their shells, as I like to say, give them a pedicure and a manicure, bleed them and then return them to their natural habitat. If you think about it, we are just borrowing the crabs!
In South Carolina, which has the toughest horseshoe crab conservation laws in the world, we are not allowed to use the crabs for bait (not the case in Massachusetts) and all of us in the fishery business are required to have permits to harvest the crabs (which wasn’t the case 30 years ago). And let me tell you, our state Department of Natural Resources’ law enforcement division is serious, they play GI Joe, hiding in the bushes and observing us to ensure we handle the crabs properly: no grabbing of the tail, no tossing of crabs that may injure them and we must cover the crabs during transport.
I wasn’t involved in the passage of these conservation laws, but I have no quarrel with them. They make complete sense, and not just from an ethical perspective. An injured horseshoe crab is of little value to us so we have a financial stake in how we handle them and to make sure their population remains robust.
South Carolina restricts areas for harvesting and provides large areas of sanctuary for the horseshoe crabs, and the birds that prey on their eggs and the juvenile horseshoe crabs. As I said earlier, horseshoe crabs used to get trapped in shrimp nets, but since 1987 the state has restricted shrimp trawls where crabs spawn so that isn’t so much of a problem anymore. The turtle exclusion (TED) devices, which allow the turtle to be released from the trawl, have had a positive side effect. It also allows the horseshoe crab to escape unharmed. So there’s no damage to the horseshoes by being hauled aboard the trawler and then thrown back overboard.
Over the past 40 years, I have seen many changes with respect to the political landscape, the conservation movement and the fisheries, not to mention the wisdom that comes with age and experience. As a commercial fisherman, it is in my political best interest to think and act in a responsible manner to ensure sustainable fisheries. Meaningful and well thought out conservation regulations are a part of the actions to sustainable fisheries and I believe these efforts are one reason why the horseshoe crab population, at least in South Carolina, is thriving compared to other states along the Eastern seaboard.
This is not to say there aren’t pressures that possibly could be detrimental to the horseshoe crab, real estate development being a prime example. Large rocks and sea walls have been added to the shoreline of beautiful Hilton Head to prevent beach erosion and damage to multi-million homes. This has not been beneficial to the horseshoe crab, though. Two years ago, I went over and rescued 500 crabs that had gotten caught in the rocks. That beach is a historical area for spawning and the crabs became trapped and stranded in the rocks.
I am mindful of all these factors as I get ready to head out to the beach, at dusk, in search of crabs, my annual rite of passage. Crabs have their job to do, and so do I. But it is one I look forward to every year. I actual count the days to the next season even before this season is over.
This year the season starts out on the New Moon so the nights are very dark. Oh how I look forward to the full moon, a big orange moon that will be rising in the sky, lighting up the beach as I’m finishing my night, knowing I provide a small part of protecting you and me with that beautiful blue blood from the horseshoe crab. How noble is that? It’s awesome from my perspective.
If you are interested in learning more about Charles River’s commitment to conservation of the Atlantic horseshoe crab and other related resources, please visit us at www.criver.com/hsc.