by Nicole Rivard

We often marvel at the Atlantic Horseshoe crab’s stately appearance and its 450-million-year existence. Few earthlings are as old.

Though they may appear to be protected by a suit of armor—what most people don’t know is that horseshoe crabs have a long history of being exploited and killed, which has resulted in a steep decline in their population.The International Union for the Conservation ofNature already consid-ers this “living fossil” as threatened. 

That’s why Friends of Animals has petitioned theU.S. Secretary of Commerce to list the Atlantic horseshoe crab under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). 

“People continue to exploit horseshoe crabs at an alarming rate, and existing laws are not adequate to protect them. In addition, climate change and resulting sea level rises threaten their habitat,” said Jennifer Best, director of Friends of Animals Wildlife Law Program. 

“All these factors demonstrate the necessity of listing this threatened, keystone species under the ESA.”

It’s mind-boggling that between 1.5 million and 2 million horseshoe crabs were killed annually between 1850 and 1920 for use as fertilizer and livestock feed, according to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). Between 1920 and 1960,this destructive practice slowed before ceasing entirely due to population declines.

It didn’t take long for humans to further modify Atlantic horseshoe crabs. In the 1970s, scientists discovered that the animals’ bright blueblood clots when exposed to harmful bacterial endo-toxins, and in the 1980s they began using horseshoe crab blood to develop the Limulus amoebocyte test (LAL) to detect endotoxins in vaccines, medications,needles and biomedical devices. (Before U.S. drug regulators approved LAL, pharma companies tested their products on rabbits, waiting to see if they developed a fever after injection.)

Bleeding labs, which drain horseshoe crabs of about 30 percent of their blood and turn that blood into LAL, collected 637,029 horseshoe crabs in 2019, 30 percent more than they took the year before,according to The Washington Post. While the crabs are returned to the water, at least 15 percent—or 95,554—die. Some research puts that mortality figure as high as 30 percent.

The killing of horseshoe crabs ramped up in the ‘90s when fishers started capturing them and chopping them up for bait to catch eel and whelk.They focused on mature, egg-bearing females due to their larger size and because the eggs could be used as additional bait.

“Because horseshoe crabs can take 10 years to mature, egg-bearing females are critical to species repro-duction, and their rampant killing has had lasting effects on horseshoe crab egg abundance in areas where heavy killing occurred,” Best said.

If horseshoe crabs are listed as endangered under the ESA, they could not be killed without a permit. The Agency should make an initial findings as to whether the petition presents substantial information that listing may be warranted within 90 days. 

The circle of life

Friends of Animals’ ESA petition points out that horseshoe crab egg abundance is important not only as an indication of species population health, but also because horseshoe crab eggs are a vital food source for the red knot,a migratory shorebird currently listed as threatened. 

In 1998, partially in response to concerns that declining horseshoe crab numbers would negatively impact the red knot, the ASMFC adopted a Horseshoe Crab FisheriesManagement Plan (FMP).Although the FMP resulted in decreased numbers of crabs killed for bait, more than 700,000 crabs were killed for that purpose in 2021. 

FoA’s petition states that the main reason FMP fails to adequately protect the Atlantic horseshoe crab is it is not intended to do so; rather FMP is clear that the ASMFC considers the horseshoe crab a “resource” that must be preserved only to the extent that it remains available “for continued use by” the public, listed species and industry.

“The FMP focuses more on crab skilled than crabs left in the ocean. This flawed approach to crab conservation cannot ensure its survival,” Best said.“When the Atlantic horseshoe crab’s interests don’t align with those of industry or with the red knot, the crab is sure to lose.

”Policy switch could curb demand for crab blood A synthetic alternative to LAL—rFC—was introduced in the early 2000s. In 2012, the Food and Drug Administration announced that the biomedical community could use rFC. However, rFC endotoxin tests had to undergo extra validations—adding time and cost—to prove they match the accuracy of crab blood. 

In 2020, Europe decided that the synthetic ingredient was equivalent in quality to the crab-derived one, but U.S.Pharmacopeia (USP) continued its foot dragging and insisted more data is needed for it to support such a move.

Last August, USP finally announced a proposal for a new standard that would make it simpler for Big Pharma to use the synthetic alternative that is expected to be effec-tive going forward. Conservationists are hailing it as an important devel-opment in the effort to save Atlan-tic horseshoe crabs, however FoA believes it doesn’t go far enough.

“The proposal is a step in the right direction, but is not enough on its own It doesn’t mandate that pharmaceutical companies use the synthetic alter-ative or prohibit using horseshoe crab blood,” Best said.

“That is why it needs to be combined with other protections,such as state and federal bans on killing horseshoe crabs.”

NY answers call to help protect horseshoe crabs

In 2023, Connecticut passed legislation—which Friends of Animals helped draft and lobby for—that prohibits the hand capture and killing of horseshoe crabs from the waters and shoreline of the state with no exemptions for the biomedical industry. During the bill signing last summer, the bill’s champion, state representative Joe Gresko,and Gov. Ned Lamont, both said they hope CT’s legislation would inspire neighboring states along the Atlantic Seaboard to step up and protect horse-shoe crabs.

A key member of the New York State Assembly has answered the call.

Following a meeting with Friendsof Animals, Deborah Glick, who chairs the New York State Assembly’s Committee on Environmental Conservation, said she is looking forward to getting legislation across the finish line in New York in 2024.

It’s crucial New York follows Connecticut’s lead. The Fisheries Commission downgraded the stock of horseshoe crabs in the NY region,which includes Connecticut and the Long Island Sound, from Neutral toPoor in 2019.

Still, New York is allotted a commercial annual quota of 366,272 horseshoe crabs by the Commission since 2004,and has voluntarily reduced killing to 150,000 crabs annually. There were 431 commercial horseshoe crab permits issued in 2023.