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Why wildlife agency wants horseshoe crab harvesting to stop in SC nature refuge

Horseshoe crabs (copy)

Horseshoe crab harvesting has contributed to a precipitous decline in the population of red knot shorebirds. File/S.C. Department of Natural Resources/Provided

AWENDAW — Federal wildlife officials have proposed ending horseshoe crab harvesting at Cape Romain because the practice is not compatible with the coastal refuge's mission of protecting nature.

The move is the latest blow to the lucrative crab blood-draw business and follows a 2020 lawsuit alleging that collecting the animals threatens endangered species. 

The evaluation issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on March 14 comes in response to two applications for special-use permits.

At least one of the requests came from Charles River Labs, a company that collects the animal's blue blood to yield a valuable medical extract.

The state Department of Natural Resources has been asked to review and comment on the proposal, as the state shares jurisdiction over the take of certain species in the refuge. A spokeswoman said the agency had no comment.

In a 42-page draft, the service listed a number of reasons why harvesting the crabs within the refuge 20 miles north of Charleston is not feasible. One factor cited is that the federal agency would have to divert funding and personnel time to oversee the activity.

This would include hiring more biologists, increasing law enforcement patrols during the day and adding them at night to ensure harvesters comply with rules and permit conditions. 

The service also noted that removing the crabs from the ecosystem can negatively impact species the refuge was established to protect. 

Shorebirds depend on the crab's eggs for food stores for their migrations. High protein contents in the adult crabs provide a food resource for scavenging birds and sea turtle, the service said. 

Because of these reasons, the agency determined that horseshoe crab harvesting cannot be authorized during the spawning season, March 15 through July 15. 

Groups like Charles River Labs have hired contractors in the past to collect an undisclosed number of crabs in late spring. The biomedical company would then extract the animal's bluish blood at a lab in Charleston and return the crabs to the ocean. 

The blood — which could run about $60,000 per gallon — is used to make an extract that can detect deadly toxins, a life-saving substance used in vaccines and medical equipment. 

Environmental groups have long expressed concern and even filed lawsuits about the process, noting that it not only affects the horseshoe crabs but also threatens wildlife that feast on the crabs' eggs, like the endangered red knot bird. 

Although the Fish and Wildlife Service has denied applications to harvest in the past on a case-by-case basis, this proposal to outright stop all taking of the horseshoe crabs is even more important, said Catherine Wannamaker, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. 

"It's a broader proclamation that they're not going to allow this throughout the refuge, and we think that's the right thing to do for birds and for horseshoe crabs," Wannamaker said. 

In August 2021, the agency started requiring interested parties to apply for a special-use permit if they wished to solicit or conduct commercial activities, including horseshoe crab harvesting, within Cape Romain's boundaries.

Prior to that, a federal judge blocked Charles River Labs in May 2021 from harvesting horseshoe crabs for blood from the refuge until a lawsuit was decided. The lab appealed, and a short while later a motion granted by the federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the order

Federal wildlife officials nixed an attempt by a contractor for Charles River Labs last year to collect horseshoe crabs in Cape Romain.

The state has also denied requests for harvesting in some areas.

Last year, DNR considered granting the company a special permit that would allow it to collect crabs on prohibited islands in the ACE Basin, south of Charleston. But the agency decided against it.

That estuary includes the Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto rivers, and has long been celebrated for protecting large expanses of public and private property. Several islands there are off limits to horseshoe crab harvesting unless specified on the harvest permit, DNR spokeswoman Erin Weeks said.

No requests for such permits were received by DNR this year, Weeks said.

The practice of taking the crabs from the beach at night involves large teams of harvesters who flush all birds present in the area at the same time, the Fish and Wildlife Service said. 

The volume of crabs collected at Cape Romain is publicly unknown, but law enforcement officers have reported the removal of 25,000 crabs from the refuge in one spawning season and upwards of 3,000 per night, according to the draft compatibility determination.

Sam Jorgensen, a Charles River spokeswoman, said the company has partnered closely with DNR for nearly 40 years to oversee the annual collection and release of horseshoe crabs. They are required to adhere to both state and federal regulations. 

"We will continue to work with all governing bodies to ensure that our process preserves and protects horseshoe crabs," Jorgensen said in an email, noting that the extract it produces from the animals' blood "preserves and protects patients" globally. 

Jorgensen did not say whether Charles River plans to appeal or seek a reversal of the Fish and Wildlife Service's proposal.

The proposal is far from final and is still open for comment. The public can review and comment on the draft until April 11. Comments can be emailed to CapeRomain@fws.gov and mailed or hand delivered to the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters, located at 5801 Highway 17 North, Awendaw, SC 29429.

The draft will not become final until after the comment period ends and the service evaluates any input and new information.

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Follow Shamira McCray on Twitter @ShamiraTweets.

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