Protecting CT horseshoe crabs can help save the planet

Opinion: Protecting CT horseshoe crabs can help save the planet

A horseshoe crab is washed by the surf at Jennings Beach in Fairfield in 2020.
A horseshoe crab is washed by the surf at Jennings Beach in Fairfield in 2020.

Brian A. Pounds, Staff Photographer / Hearst Connecticut Media

Friends of Animals has been asked over and over recently why Atlantic horseshoe crabs are killed in Connecticut. A bill to stop their seasonal slaughter, which FoA helped draft, has been introduced by Rep. Joe Gresko (D-Stratford) and is now moving through the legislature.

Horseshoe crab blood

Connecticut residents are shocked when we explain to them horseshoe crabs are chopped up into pieces by fishers to bait eel and whelk pots so people can eat conch fritters and smoked eel. There are currently 16 commercial bait fishers licensed to kill horseshoe crabs in the state. Each one could kill a staggering 4,950 horseshoe crabs this season.

In addition, hundreds of thousands of horseshoe crabs living up and down the Eastern Seaboard are rounded up each year by pharmaceutical companies. They are drained of much of their blood — used to develop vaccines — and returned to the ocean, after which many die. While horseshoe crabs are currently not being rounded up for their blood in Connecticut, they could be targeted in the future, which is why it is crucial this year’s bill move forward without a carve-out for the pharmaceutical industry.

Humans no longer need to use horseshoe blood for biomedical purposes because more than 20 years ago, scientists created a method to synthesize the compound found in horseshoe blood. It has been approved in Europe, Japan and China for the exact same tests for which horseshoe crab blood is used in the United States.

Some Connecticut residents are also surprised to learn that not only have horseshoe crabs along the Atlantic Coast declined in status for three consecutive reviews by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, but they are also already “functionally extinct” in Long Island Sound. That’s according to the late Jennifer H. Mattei, a member of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Horseshoe Crab Specialist Group, who Connecticut was lucky to have as a biology professor at Sacred Heart University, where she founded Project Limulus to study these ancient mariners.

That means horseshoe crabs no longer play an effective role in their ecosystem, and that negatively affects many other species. Since horseshoe crabs have been around for more than 450 million years, longer than dinosaurs, they are very tightly woven into their environment.

Humans don’t need to eat eel and whelk to survive. However, migratory birds do need to eat horseshoe crab eggs, especially the threatened red knot. The health of the red knot population is also important because they are prey for the arctic fox and predators of millions of insects and other invertebrate species. In 2021, fewer than 7,000 red knots were found in Delaware Bay, a key spring stopover habitat. That’s less than a third found in 2020. Without sufficient horseshoe crab eggs to feed on, migratory birds run out of energy and die before reaching their breeding grounds. Protecting CT horseshoe crabs can help save the planet

Buy Horseshoe Crab Blood Online

Aside from playing a key role in the survival of migratory shorebird species, horseshoe crabs are an important food for sea turtles. Not to mention horseshoe crabs are themselves environments. Creatures such as anemones, blue mussels, barnacles, red beard sponges, eastern oysters, skeleton shrimps, sand builder worms, and Agardh’s red seaweed all make the carapace of horseshoe crabs their home.

What’s happening with horseshoe crabs in New England is part of a larger global biodiversity crisis — the planet is experiencing the largest loss of life since the dinosaursWildlife populations have plunged by an average of 69 percent between 1970 and 2018. That means populations have dramatically fallen and extinction risk is growing, although it is not distributed equally. According to the IUCN Red List, about 2.13 million at-risk species have been identified by scientists; around half are insects. Four are horseshoe crabs, 6,577 are mammals and 369,000 are flowering plants.

A historic deal was struck to halt biodiversity loss by 2030 at COP15, the United Nations World meeting that took place in December to address biodiversity loss. Atlantic horseshoe crabs are running out of time, though.

But there is hope for Connecticut’s horseshoe crabs if residents take action. You’ve probably come across horseshoe crabs lying on their backs and stepped in to help flip them over and right themselves. Now they need you to encourage legislators to ban their senseless killing in Connecticut, which New Jersey did in 2008, by passing HB 6484, which this year is being dedicated to Professor Mattei.

Priscilla Feral is president of Friends of Animals, a Connecticut-based, international animal advocacy group founded in 1957.

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