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Editorial: Surprise order helps protect SC horseshoe crabs, but more is needed

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Licensed harvesters catch thousands of horseshoe crabs each year in the Lowcountry and turn them over to Charles River. National Park Service/Provided

The news keeps getting better for those concerned about South Carolina's horseshoe crab population and the threatened rufa red knot shorebird that depends on crab eggs during its migration from South America to the Artic, but we still need more robust data about both and the impact of harvesting operations.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel issued an unexpectedly significant injunction to prevent the harvesting of horseshoe crabs from 30 state beaches, including most in Charleston, Colleton and Beaufort counties, all considered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as critical habitat for the red knot. The injunction prohibits crab harvesting from these beaches during the spawning season and ends June 15, after which the parties will try to map out a plan for next year. 

The injunction comes shortly after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued a 42-page finding that crab harvesting is an incompatible use in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Sanctuary, a refuge created almost a century ago specifically to protect shorebirds. The agency has been accepting comments on the finding, and we urge it to make that ban permanent in the 66,000-acre refuge.

Charles River Laboratories, a defendant in the federal case, has collected horseshoe crabs in South Carolina to drain them of their unique blood to make a valuable medical solution and then returned the crabs to the wild in a weakened state. Reporter Shamira McCray noted the company agreed to the terms of the preliminary injunction and said it is "committed to collecting the natural resource of horseshoe crab blood in a safe and humane manner that is environmentally sustainable." It may continue to harvest crabs this spring from marsh waters, which are not frequented by red knots.

That is a responsible position, but it would be irresponsible for state and federal agencies to simply take the company's word that its practices are environmentally sustainable. Catherine Wannamaker, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, brought the federal suit on behalf of the Coastal Conservation League and the Defenders of Wildlife. And while their primary interest was the future of the red knot, they also suspect the horseshoe crab population itself might be at risk. "At minimum, we don't know enough," she tells us. "At worst, the anecdotal evidence in South Carolina shows they're declining."

The two environmental groups had sued the Fish and Wildlife Service until that case was settled with the agency's agreement to require permits for harvesting in Cape Romain, a step that in turn led to its recent proposed ban on horseshoe crab harvesting there. But advocates realized Cape Romain was only a small part of the picture, so they pivoted to sue the state Department of Natural Resources for not regulating the holding ponds where the horseshoe crabs are kept. The department had faced questions about a conflict of interest because of revenue it received from Charles Rivers Labs through its lease of Morgan Island, a lease deal that recently changed hands.

We remain concerned that the state Department of Natural Resources has little public data to show how many crabs exist in state waters or what percentage of crabs are harvested, bled and returned each year. The agency does not enforce requirements that the crabs to be returned to the same geographic area where they were collected, nor does the agency have good data on how many survive the ordeal of being captured, bled and returned to the wild. And state legislators still haven't acted to amend a state law that allows saltwater fishing interests that harvest the crabs to shield their names and "specialized methodologies" from public view, along with certain data about harvests.

Fortunately, advocates have successfully used the courts to help push government agencies in the right direction, toward needed protection of red knots and horseshoe crabs. But their future remains far from settled. If this year is deemed a success, DNR should make these new rules permanent. 

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