News | January 13, 2022

We’re suing regulators and a pharmaceutical company over crab pens

Confining horseshoe crabs to manmade ponds robs threatened shorebirds of critical food source

The state’s natural resources agency and pharmaceutical giant Charles River Laboratories are facing a federal lawsuit for violating the Endangered Species Act by allowing harvesters to keep horseshoe crabs captive in manmade ponds, a practice only South Carolina permits.

Confining crabs to crudely dug ponds during breeding season deprives a threatened migratory shorebird, the red knot, of its primary food source.

The lawsuit, filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center representing Defenders of Wildlife and the Coastal Conservation League, comes after the expiration of a federally required 60-day notice letter. The letter requested the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, which issues permits for the ponds, and Charles River Laboratories, whose agents build and maintain the ponds, to end the practice.

“We asked the state’s wildlife regulators to do the right thing and protect the state’s wildlife, namely the red knots, and they did not,” said Lindsay Dubin, an attorney with Defenders of Wildlife.

General makeup of the crab pond in Beaufort County.

“Now we have no choice but to go to court to stop the state from authorizing this harmful practice and to stop Charles River from further threatening these iconic birds,” she adds.

In the lawsuit, the conservation groups accuse SCDNR of essentially handing a “blank check” to Charles River with no restrictions on the number of crabs it can pile into the ponds or the amount of time it can confine them there.

Thousands of crabs die during the process, both in the ponds and after the pharmaceutical company drains up to half of the creatures’ blue blood, which is prized for its ability to test the sterility of medical equipment.

Charles River continues to rely on crab blood despite the availability of a synthetic alternative that is equally effective for biomedical use. Other pharmaceutical companies such as Eli Lily are successfully using the synthetic.

“South Carolina is aiding Charles River – a roughly $20 billion company — by keeping secret nearly everything about these horseshoe crab ponds,” said Catherine Wannamaker, a senior SELC attorney. “What we have managed to glean from public records isn’t reassuring. State regulators don’t inspect the ponds and don’t know how many crabs are packed into them. That leaves thousands of crabs to die in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions.”

Definitive data on the scale of the South Carolina operations has not been made publicly available. SCDNR refuses to release details on the number of ponds in use and the number of crabs confined to them, indicating that information is protected as a trade secret for Charles River.

It is unconscionable that the state’s wildlife protectors don’t appear concerned. But we are, and we’re taking them to court to stop it.

Emily Cedzo, Coastal Conservation League

The scant records SCDNR was willing to share with the public indicate Charles River takes as many as 150,000 horseshoe crabs from South Carolina beaches each spring and crowds three-quarters of them into holding ponds before extracting their blood. Red knots time their 9,000-mile migrations to coincide with the crabs’ short spawning season. Without an abundance of nutrient-rich crab eggs, red knots will not survive their migration.

“These amazing birds have evolved to depend on the mid-Atlantic’s horseshoe crabs and, like so much in nature, the balance is delicate,” said Emily Cedzo of the Coastal Conservation League. “Charles River is upsetting that balance, and it is unconscionable that the state’s wildlife protectors don’t appear concerned. But we are, and we’re taking them to court to stop it.”

Although the state does not disclose information on the ponds, a 2018 Army Corps of Engineers federal permit for a crab pond in Beaufort County is one of the few records that identify a specific location, although it is not clear the pond is still in use. Aerial video and still images provided to the conservation groups show the general makeup of the pond.

Earlier this year, SELC and Defenders of Wildlife successfully sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for allowing Charles River’s agents to harvest horseshoe crabs at Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge without a federal permit.