Horseshoe Crabs Draw Endangered Species Petition

Reuters file photo
Atlantic horseshoe crabs come ashore to a tidal pool along Pickering Beach, a national horseshoe crab sanctuary near Little Creek, Del., in May 2008.

Environmental groups on Feb. 12 petitioned the U.S. government seeking endangered species protection for the American horseshoe crab, a “living fossil” under threat from commercial harvests for bait and biomedical use as well as from habitat loss and climate change.

These spine-tailed sea creatures named for the shape of their body shells have been crawling ashore since long before the age of dinosaurs, and in modern times were a familiar sight to summer beachgoers along the U.S. mid-Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.

But horseshoe crab populations have crashed in recent decades, with spawning numbers down two-thirds from 1990 in the Delaware Bay estuary that was once their biggest stronghold, according to conservation groups. Research also shows their egg densities falling more than 80% in the past four decades.

Those trends are tied to stress on other marine species that feed on their larvae and eggs, including the rufa red knot, a migratory shorebird whose own 2014 threatened-species listing cited horseshoe crab harvests as a contributing factor.

Classified not as true crabs but as marine arthropods most closely related to spiders and scorpions, horseshoe crabs are among the oldest living creatures on Earth, with fossils of their ancestors dating back some 450 million years.

Despite their primitive appearance, horseshoe crabs are harmless to people, for whom encounters were once common along shorelines where the animals congregated each spring to lay a million eggs.

Now, after surviving several mass-extinction events through the ages, including an asteroid impact 66 million years ago that killed off dinosaurs, the lowly horseshoe crab is facing its own demise from a combination of human activities.

“We’re wiping out one of the world’s oldest and toughest creatures,” said Will Harlan, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, one of 23 groups petitioning the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for the endangered species declaration.

Such a listing would generally make it unlawful to harm or kill a horseshoe crab without a special permit. The petition also seeks designation of “critical habitat” to be protected, especially during spawning season.

A NOAA Fisheries spokesperson said the agency would review the petition, but declined further comment.

The petition cites numerous threats to the American horseshoe crab, one of four living species of the animal, stemming from human activities.

Pharmaceutical companies reap horseshoe crabs in large numbers — nearly 1 million in 2022 — for their blue-colored blood, which contains a clotting agent used to test drugs and medical devices for bacterial endotoxins, the petition said.

Regulations allow the biomedical industry to extract only a portion of a horseshoe crab’s blood and then release it alive in the area it was collected, though 10%-15% of harvested animals die during this process, NOAA says on its website.

Harlan said non-industry research shows about 30% of horseshoe crabs collected for blood extraction die in the process. He added that synthetic alternatives are widely used in Europe, but U.S. companies have been slow to adopt them.

Over-harvesting of horseshoe crabs as bait for commercial whelk and eel fisheries has further decimated their numbers, with no sign of recovery even after quotas were imposed, according to the petition.

The creatures also face growing habitat loss from oceanfront development, dredging, pollution, coastal erosion and sea-level rise linked to global warming from increased greenhouse gas emissions.

Mass die-offs have been observed in the past three years, with NOAA in 2023 ranking the horseshoe crab’s overall vulnerability to climate change as “very high,” the petition said.

Hong Kong scientists seek good fortune

Reuters file photo
Atlantic horseshoe crabs lay their eggs on Pickering Beach, a national horseshoe crab sanctuary near Little Creek, Del., in May 2008.

HONG KONG (Reuters) — Hong Kong conservationists on Feb. 21 began underwater tracking of endangered horseshoe crabs, in a bid to help them survive the perils of modern life.

Of four species worldwide, the Chinese horseshoe crab (Tachypleus tridentatus) and the mangrove horseshoe crab (Carcinoscorpis rotundicauda) are found in Hong Kong coastal waters.

The Ocean Park Conservation Foundation (OPCFHK) said it had initiated the first underwater automated acoustic “telemetry system” for a pilot tracking study.

The team released an initial batch of tagged adult crabs into Tung Chung Bay, near the airport, on the day and will track and investigate movement and breeding patterns.

“Our commitment is to ensure the continuous breeding and survival of local horseshoe crabs in the wild,” said Howard Chuk, foundation director of OPCFHK.

The local population of juvenile horseshoe crabs is estimated to be less than 10,000, while data on the adult population is inadequate, making it difficult to accurately estimate their numbers, OPCFHK said.

Rising water levels due to global warming could also exacerbate loss of habitat with Hong Kong’s beaches at risk of being submerged in the future, said Prof. Cheung Siu-gin, associate professor at the Department of Chemistry at City University, Hong Kong.

“The measurement of water temperature in this study can also indirectly monitor the situation of global warming.”