Court orders halt to blood harvest of horseshoe crabs in Cape Romain

Lawsuit: Illegal harvest harms crabs and threatened birds that depend on crab eggs

(© Bill Lea)

A federal judge has blocked Charles River Laboratories from harvesting horseshoe crabs for their blood from Cape Roman National Wildlife Refuge until SELC's lawsuit seeking to require the practice be conducted sustainably has been decided.

The lawsuit contends the harvest is illegal at the refuge because the contracted commercial fisherman does not have a permit to take the crabs, and because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- in authorizing the harvest -- did not consider or study the effects on threatened migratory birds that depend on crab eggs to fuel their grueling journeys.

This is a federal wildlife refuge, and the very federal agency in charge of protecting it is not doing what it is mandated to do.”

—Catherine Wannamaker, Senior Attorney

“We are pleased the court granted this injunction. This is a federal wildlife refuge, and the very federal agency in charge of protecting it is not doing what it is mandated to do,” said Catherine Wannamaker, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “And that is ensuring nothing upsets nature’s delicate balance in this pristine area. A commercial crab harvest that harms threatened birds definitely upsets the natural balance.”

Charles River Laboratories’ contractor descends on the refuge in the spring when horseshoe crabs by the thousands emerge from the ocean to lay eggs. The gathered crabs are taken to a Charleston-area facility where lab workers puncture their hearts and drain a third of the crabs’ blue blood, which is used in the bio-medical industry as a bacteria detector. Every year, hundreds of crabs from Cape Romain die in the process. Others are returned to the water but are so lethargic that they are unlikely to successfully reproduce.

“Today’s ruling, which concluded that Cape Romain wildlife would be irreparably harmed by the harvest, brings much-needed relief for the refuge and the many species that depend on a healthy horseshoe crab population,” said Lindsay Dubin, staff attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. “For years, Charles River has exploited the refuge while the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service has turned a blind eye.”

The harvest’s ultimate effect is a significant reduction in the number of nutrient-rich eggs available for the red knot and other migratory birds. Notably, other companies such as Eli Lilly have pursued a synthetic alternative to horseshoe crab blood for medical testing.

The red knots, for example, plan a stop-over at Cape Romain and other beaches to coincide with the spawning. The birds gorge themselves on eggs to power the final leg of their migrations that start in South America and end in the Arctic, a journey of more than 9,000 miles.

The lawsuit filed in Charleston Federal Court on behalf of Defenders of Wildlife, alleges that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in allowing the harvest on Cape Romain, violated:

  • The National Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act of 1997
  • The Endangered Species Act
  • The Migratory Bird Treaty Act

More background on the case can be found here and here.

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