The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to stop allowing for the harvesting of horseshoe crabs on Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, largely because of the impact on threatened shorebirds.
The move comes after a 2020 lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service and several reports by The State Media Co. that focused on the threat horseshoe crab harvesting poses to the refuge’s wildlife. The service’s 42-page draft determination, published March 14, twice cites the newspaper’s reporting.
Spanning 66,000 acres located north of Charleston, Cape Romain was founded in 1932 to protect the habitat of migratory shorebirds and other bird species. However, for decades the Fish and Wildlife Service allowed fisherman to harvest horseshoe crabs from the refuge for the benefit of pharmaceutical companies, which use the crabs’ blue blood to detect bacterial toxins.
But removing arthropods from the refuge while they are spawning endangers the red knot, a threatened migratory shorebird that depends on horseshoe crab eggs for survival, experts say.
In October 2020, a lawsuit alleged the federal service violated several federal statutes when it did not require commercial horseshoe crab harvesters to get a special use permit from the Fish and Wildlife Service to harvest in the refuge.
Since February 2021, The State Media Co. has published investigations uncovering that company representatives of Charles River Laboratories — the only company harvesting horseshoe crabs in South Carolina for biomedical purposes — minimized how many crabs might die from the biomedical process. The company also downplayed the potential negative impact to red knots’ survival.
A Charles River executive also told a reporter he did not know harvesters had illegally taken crabs from off-limits beaches in Cape Romain, even though he’d been informed of the violation since at least 2014 and a lawsuit also challenged the poaching. Further, The State reported that Charles River pushed to discourage the use of a synthetic alternative to its ingredient derived from horseshoe crab blood.
On Tuesday, Charles River said the company had worked with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources for nearly 40 years to oversee the annual collection and release of horseshoe crabs. In response to the agency’s proposal to stop permitting for horseshoe crab harvesting on Cape Romain, the company said it would work with “all governing bodies” to make certain their process “preserves and protects” the arthropods.
On March 14, the Fish and Wildlife Service published a “draft compatibility determination” that draws a strong relationship between harvesting and harm to wildlife on the refuge.
It clearly states that horseshoe crab harvesting does not align with the intention of the refuge.
“It’s something that we’ve been saying for years,” said Catherine Wannamaker, a lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center, who was part of the team that showed in a 2020 lawsuit that harvesters for Charles River had illegally collected crabs from Cape Romain. “The other side is like, ‘You can’t demonstrate the connection.’ Now, we have the Fish and Wildlife Service taking a strong stance based on that connection.”
The service’s draft document lists a plethora of concerns that stem from horseshoe crab harvesting on Cape Romain, including the harm done to horseshoe crabs and the impact to federally endangered and threatened species that call the refuge their home.
During spawning season, starting in April and lasting through June, about 25,000 crabs were removed each year from the refuge, with as many as 3,000 crabs removed a night, according to the document. Once the arthropods are bled for biomedical purposes — which involves removing as much as half of their blood — 20% of female crabs bled by Charles River in South Carolina die after being released back to the ocean, research shows.
Research has also found that bled female crabs mate less than those that are not bled and, when returned to the water, are more sluggish and disoriented.
“Therefore, a removal for biomedical use is functionally the same as a mortality,” the Fish and Wildlife Service said in its document.
Fewer female horseshoe crabs spawning means a decreased food source for several wildlife on the refuge.
When the red knot travels north from the bottom tip of South America to the Canadian Arctic, the threatened shorebird likes to stop at Cape Romain to fuel up on the eggs of horseshoe crabs. A flock of 40,000 red knots need to eat 16 billion eggs in a stopover period, according to previous reporting by The State Media Co.
Continuing to allow harvesting of horseshoe crabs would “significantly impact” red knots, the report said.
“Destruction or degradation of a stopover habitat may compromise a bird’s ability to reach its goal and, for individuals migrating to the breeding grounds, this could negatively affect nesting success and long-term population viability,” the document said.
Loggerhead sea turtles, piping plovers and several types of shorebirds also feed on horseshoe crab eggs.
Beyond a dwindling food source and harm to horseshoe crabs, the Fish and Wildlife Service found three overarching issues:
▪ The refuge doesn’t have enough money and staff to oversee harvesting.
▪ An increase in human activity from harvesting negatively affects shorebird and seabird survival.
▪ Climate change will worsen impacts to the refuge and wildlife that use it.
No harvesting this year
Horseshoe crab harvesting is off limits at Cape Romain this season, and it’s not the first year that’s happened.
While the S.C. DNR issues permits to harvest in the state, the Fish and Wildlife Service quietly announced in August 2021 that a special use permit would be needed for commercial activities on the refuge, including horseshoe crab harvesting.
Since then, if a harvester were to request a permit for horseshoe crab harvesting on Cape Romain, the government would first need to evaluate whether that activity is compatible with the refuge’s purpose and isn’t harming endangered species, according to previous reporting by The State Media Co.
In 2022, the Fish and Wildlife Service received two applications for special use permits to harvest on Cape Romain. Neither were granted. Charles River Lab’s DNR-licensed fishermen did not collect horseshoe crabs from the refuge in 2022, said Samantha Jorgensen, company spokesperson.
“We will continue to work with all governing bodies to ensure that our process preserves and protects horseshoe crabs,” Jorgensen said.
Now, if the compatibility determination is finalized, the service “will not issue special use permits for horseshoe crab harvesting” on the refuge, said a Fish and Wildlife spokesperson via email.
Through April 11, the service’s draft is up for public comment. People who want to comment can do so by emailing CapeRomain@fws.gov.