It’s been a good week for those concerned about the health of South Carolina’s horseshoe crab population — and also about the viability of the endangered red knot shorebirds that depend on the crabs’ eggs for sustenance during their annual migration along our coast. But we need still more action from the state to put all our related concerns to rest.
First, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources decided not to issue a special permit to harvest horseshoe crabs in part of the ACE Basin, a pristine coastal habitat south of Charleston — a decision that never should have been in question but unfortunately was. Just days later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it would not permit contractors for Charles River Labs to collect horseshoe crabs in Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, another pristine habitat just north of Mount Pleasant.
The latter decision was especially welcome because protecting shorebirds is one of the main reasons that the Wildlife Refuge was established here in the first place. Two environmental groups had sued the Fish and Wildlife Service when it allowed harvesters to collect crabs there; a judge stopped the practice temporarily, and federal officials eventually decided to require permits for crab harvesting, ending the lawsuit. Just recently, the agency concluded that issuing such a permit would not be appropriate.
While both the state and federal steps were laudable and prudent, the state still needs to do more to distance our wildlife regulators from Charles River Labs, a pharmaceutical and animal breeding company that pays contractors to harvest crabs. The company bleeds the crabs to obtain a lucrative ingredient in an extract that can detect deadly toxins in vaccines and medical equipment. The main problem with this is that the state agency that regulates the company has no definitive data about whether crab harvesting has dipped below a sustainable level. While bled crabs are returned to the ocean, their survival rates are unclear, and the Department of Natural Resources doesn’t even release information on how many horseshoe crabs are collected.
The other big problem is that DNR has an apparent conflict. Charles River Labs also leases Monkey Island from the agency, and its $1.5 million annual lease payments provide the agency with revenue to hire about 30 employees, creating at the very least the appearance of a conflict of interest — a conflict detailed thoroughly in The Post and Courier's Uncovered project, "Monkeys and Blood."
State Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, has filed a bill that would require the Natural Resources Department to release information about horseshoe crabs and other species, and while it's too late for S.1246 to pass this year, we urge Sen. Campsen and other lawmakers to explore other vehicles for requiring Natural Resources to compile and share more information. We agree with Catherine Wannamaker, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, who told our reporters, "It doesn't make any sense to us why this particular fishery should be shielded in secrecy, and so we appreciate (Sen. Campsen's) ... efforts to remove that veil of secrecy."
We also need further action to address the conflict between the Department of Natural Resources and Charles River stemming from the Monkey Island lease. The agency should not have to depend on a private company for a significant chunk of its operating revenue if it also is in charge of regulating a separate aspect of that company’s work.
As we’ve noted before, crab harvesting along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts has risen 63% since 2004, and crab populations are in decline off some Northeastern states. Horseshoe crab harvesting here has more than doubled since 2004, but only until we see better data about the health of horseshoe crabs in the state’s waters can we form an educated opinion about whether the state is doing enough to protect them.