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Horseshoe Crabs

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By Ken Taub

One could easily be forgiven for not knowing certain things. 

While strolling along the moonlit shores of Riverhead’s Peconic Estuary or, closer to my home, at tiny Cordwood Park, on the back side of Stony Brook Harbor, you might come upon a prehistoric carousel of love. Yet watching the late spring mating circles of horseshoe crabs — at once peculiar and comical — an observer might never know how very significant these odd creatures are. One might not know, as I did not for many a year, that they have been on this Earth for so long that they survived five mass extinctions, an impressive feat for any earthling.  

One might also be wholly unaware that people in surgery, those who receive stents or joint replacements, or the large numbers of us who get flu vaccines, take insulin or receive intravenously delivered chemotherapies or antibiotics are safer, free of dangerous endotoxins, thanks to the coppery blue blood of horseshoe crabs.

Really, who knew that one of our saving angels has not feathery wings but leathery hard carapaces, seven pairs of legs and a pointy tail with eyes on its underside. Tooling around the seashores, ocean shallows and estuaries for nearly 450 million years, and unchanged for over 300 million, they have been largely cancer-free and carefree — until recently.

Growing up on Long Island, one saw larger groupings of horseshoe crabs seemingly everywhere. But then their harvesting as bait had dropped measurably in the 1950s and ’60s, and their use as fertilizer had stopped decades before that. And while their local harvest has gone down significantly from the late 1990s, their numbers on Long Island and the waterways of the greater New York region show a continuing decline, according to both the Department of Environmental Conservation and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.  

However, in other parts of the East Coast, specifically the rich Delaware Bay region, the overall stock remains stable, while in the Southeast (North Carolina through Florida), indications are the numbers of horseshoe crabs have actually increased.

So, what has happened in our neck of the woods, and what can we do to ensure steady populations of these ancient arthropods whose abundant eggs are a great, life-saving food source for migrating birds, and whose special blood, once extracted, saves us? How, in short, do we return the favor?

The reasons for regional differences in stock abundance are many and depend as much on natural cycles as harvesting by fisherman and drug manufacturers (the majority of horseshoe crabs, once their blood has been extracted to produce limulus amoebocyte lysate, or LAL, are kept alive and returned to the waters).  

One reason for our local decline is that other states — Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Pennsylvania — have not harvested any horseshoe crabs since 2007. Yet there have been very few harvest moratoriums here in New York, and they are small and temporary.  Horseshoe crabs are preferred by our local fishing fleets as bait for whelk, eel and conch. Apparently, neighboring moratoriums have made our crusty old co-inhabitants more valuable as a bait source here.

What can be done to keep their numbers steady? Increasingly, concerned citizens are encouraging the use of nylon and other mesh bait bags, which require only a tenth of the regular portion of horseshoe crab bait. It’s efficient, and it needs only further promotion. Others are looking to test alternative bait sources. 

Scientists at the University of Delaware have developed such an alternative, and some individuals and groups, like Cornell Cooperative Extension in Riverhead, want to do a two-year test in our local waters. Some are considering breeding season moratoriums during the spring, while allowing the horseshoe crabs to be harvested come summer and fall, in prime fishing season. Others are calling for a full, multiyear halt on bait harvesting. Reporting pilferage of large numbers of horseshoe crabs — sometimes flatbed or small pickup truck-fulls— to the NY DEC can be helpful, as they will give out stiff fines to those who are caught.

Then there is this: Spreading the word in articles, classrooms, at eco-fairs, among fishing clubs and at town hall meetings in shore towns that these very old animals are very valuable; to us, in certain medicines and medical procedures. To the migrating wildlife and fish who feast on their larvae. To our local fishermen, a vital industry on Long Island for over 150 years. And, of course, for the horseshoe crabs themselves; their eons-long survival a testimony to adaptation, endurance and whatever spirit resides in such strange and remarkable beings.

Ken Taub, a longtime resident of St. James, now a volunteer with the Long Island Sierra Club Group, is a copywriter, marketing consultant, online journalist and editor and author. 

Activists, politicians, volunteers taking closer look at declining population of Long Island’s ocean life

Horseshoe crabs have been on Earth for almost 500 million years, but their future is uncertain. Researchers like Matt Sclafani, a marine educator from the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Riverhead, said he believes that the species is in an alarming decline.

“It’s a very important issue for a lot of reasons,” Sclafani said during a horseshoe crab monitoring session at West Meadow beach in Stony Brook on Monday night.

Horseshoe crabs are a valuable species to human life, Sclafani said. Their blue blood is used for pharmaceutical purposes. Fishermen use them as one of the most effective sources of bait that exists.

Sclafani called Delaware Bay the epicenter for horseshoe crab spawning activity, with Long Island coming in as a close second as one of the most important areas to the species on the East Coast, he said.

Sclafani and his team of volunteers take to the local shores when the tides are low, usually in the middle of the night, to count and tag horseshoe crabs that come up to the shore to spawn. On Monday, Sclafani was joined by Frank Chin, the regular site coordinator for West Meadow beach, along with Grace Scalzo, a volunteer, and Karen Papa and her sons — 12-year-old Zachary and 8-year-old Jonah.

North Shore activists take to the waters to learn more about the area horseshoe crabs. Photo by Alex Petroski
North Shore activists take to the waters to learn more about the area horseshoe crabs. Photo by Alex Petroski

“We get a lot of volunteers for this program,” Sclafani said. “That’s the part I think is really great, too. We get people involved in their backyards. There’s not a lot of marine life that you can get involved with and handle this directly — that comes right out onto the beach for you without a net or fishing pole.”

In all, the team tagged 55 horseshoe crabs over the course of the night, though that is nothing compared to the night on the South Shore when Sclafani said he and a team of about 35 volunteers tagged about 800 crabs. The process requires measurement, drilling a small hole into the shell, and then applying a round tag that has tracking information on it which is recorded.

“I think the entire population up and down the East Coast is in trouble,” Larry Swanson, associate dean of the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, said of the horseshoe crab population in an interview last week. “It’s in trouble for a variety of reasons including people overfishing the population, but also certain birds, including the red knot, are particularly prone to using them as a food source.”

Sclafani said the consequences could be dire, if the crabs are not saved.

“Their eggs are really important to the ecosystem,” Sclafani said. “A lot of animals feed on them, including migratory shore birds.”

Town of Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) divulged plans to urge the Department of Environmental Conservation to expand restrictions on harvesting horseshoe crabs in May, to the chagrin of fishermen. Those plans have since been tabled.

“I’m just a man, but I’m a vital part of the food chain and I think I’m at the top,” Ron Bellucci Jr. of Sound Beach said in an interview last month.

Horseshoe crab harvesting is a vital part of his income, he said. Local fishermen have also questioned the validity of claims about the declining population.

North Shore activists take to the waters to learn more about the area horseshoe crabs. Photo by Alex Petroski
North Shore activists take to the waters to learn more about the area horseshoe crabs. Photo by Alex Petroski

The idea that the species may not be declining is not an encouraging sign to Malcolm Bowman, professor of physical oceanography and distinguished service professor at SoMAS, Stony Brook. He is also the president of Stony Brook Environmental Conservancy and the Friends of Flax Pond, two environmental advocacy groups.

“We know in nature that things go up and down, and up and down, but you have to look at long-term trends; 10 years, 20 years,” Bowman said in an interview last week. “I’ve worked with fishermen a lot. They have to make a living, I understand that, but it’s important to keep communications between the scientists and say the fishermen with mutual respect, and that way we can learn a lot from them. We scientists are trained to have a long-term view. It’s not just this season, this summer, this breeding season. It’s a long-term view. I think that’s so important.”

More restricted areas, which Romaine is pushing for, could simply result in overharvesting in areas without restrictions, both Bowman and Sclafani said.

There has also been some experimentation with extracting the blue blood while the animal is still alive, then rereleasing them into the water. This process is called biomedical harvesting.

“That’s becoming a more and more controversial topic,” Sclafani said. “The biomedical companies have maintained that it’s a low mortality rate — about 10 percent … they might even be as high as 40 or 50 percent.”

He also mentioned that there are concerns about the horseshoe crabs’ spawning activity after this process is completed.

Bowman stopped short of saying that the extinction of the horseshoe crab would have a drastic impact on human life, but it’s not a good sign.

“I was reading some very important news that’s coming out about the extinction of species on the planet,” Bowman said. “Species are going extinct at a huge rate. The cumulative effect is going to have a very bad effect on human civilization, far greater than we can imagine. We only see a little piece of it.”

Young horseshoe crabs at West Meadow Beach, Stony Brook. File photo

Local fishermen came out to Brookhaven Town Hall last Thursday to let officials know they oppose Supervisor Ed Romaine’s push to limit horseshoe crab harvesting.

Earlier that week, Romaine (R) announced he and the town board would consider urging the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which regulates the industry, to ban horseshoe crab harvesting within 500 feet of town-owned property in an effort to protect the crab population and allow them a safe place to mate.

Romaine moved to table the idea after hearing the baymen’s concerns.

The 450-million-year-old species are used for bait and in the biomedical and pharmaceutical industries, as their blue blood is used to detect bacterial contamination in products. At a May 19 press conference, officials said if the crab population shrinks, other species — like those that eat the crabs’ eggs — could be negatively affected.

Stony Brook’s West Meadow Beach and Mount Sinai Harbor already have harvesting plans in place, and a ban would broaden the restriction area.

However, the fishermen said the restriction was not based on any facts and the horseshoe crab population is not declining. In addition, they said further regulation would affect their livelihoods.

Ron Bellucci Jr., of Sound Beach, said horseshoe crab harvesting is a vital part of his income. He added that he knows the crabs are important to the larger ecosystem, which he is a part of as well.

“I’m just a man, but I’m a vital part of the food chain and I think I’m at the top,” he said.

According to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a partnership between East Coast states to protect fisheries, a 2013 assessment of the horsecrab population showed a decrease in the New York and New England regions, while crabs have increased in the southern states — North Carolina through Florida — and remained stable from New Jersey through coastal Virginia.

David Klopfenstein, of the North Shore Baymen’s Association, urged the board to speak with the DEC before supporting a ban. He said there was a lot of misinformation regarding a very complex issue that is already being controlled.

“It’s also the most well-managed fisheries that we have up and down the East Coast,” he said.

The DEC did not immediately comment on the issue.

A horseshoe crab no more than 4 years old. Photo by Erika Karp

With its horseshoe crab population dwindling, Town of Brookhaven officials are calling on the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to ban harvesting within 500 feet of town property.

At the Mount Sinai Stewardship Center at Cedar Beach on Tuesday, Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) announced the Brookhaven Town Board is poised to approve a message in support of the ban at Thursday night’s board meeting.

A horseshoe crab no more than 4 years old is the center of attention at a press conference on Tuesday. Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine is calling on the state to ban the harvesting of the crabs within 500 feet of town property. Photo by Erika Karp
A horseshoe crab no more than 4 years old is the center of attention at a press conference on Tuesday. Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine is calling on the state to ban the harvesting of the crabs within 500 feet of town property. Photo by Erika Karp

Horseshoe crabs are harvested for bait and medicinal purposes, as their blue blood, which is worth an estimated $15,000 a quart, is used in the biomedical and pharmaceutical industries to detect bacterial contamination in drugs and medical supplies, due to its special properties.

While there is already a harvesting ban in place for Mount Sinai Harbor, Romaine is seeking to expand the restriction across the north and south shores so the crabs have a safe place to mate.

The crabs take about nine years to reach sexual maturity.

“We think it is time not to stop or prohibit the harvesting of horseshoe crabs … but instead to say, ‘Not within town properties,’” Romaine stated.

Brookhaven’s Chief Environmental Analyst Anthony Graves and clean water advocacy group Defend H20’s Founder and President Kevin McAllister joined Romaine at the Tuesday morning press conference.

Graves said the ban would help preserve the 450-million-year-old species’ population.

Preserving the species affects more than just the crabs: If the population continues to shrink, other species — like the red knot bird, which eat the crab eggs — will suffer.

“They are in some ways an ecological keystone species,” Graves said. “That means that they serve a function beyond their individual existence.”

East Coast waterways are the epicenter for the crabs and, according to McAllister, states like New Jersey, Delaware and Virginia have already enacted harvesting limits. The crabs’ nesting season starts in mid-May and lasts until the end of June. Officials said the crabs are oftentimes harvested at night and illegally.

Romaine said he has asked all of the town’s waterfront villages to support the measure. If the DEC moves forward with the ban, Romaine said the town could help the department with enforcement by establishing an intermunicipal agreement.

A DEC representative did not immediately return a request for comment.

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