Science vs. Greed=Climate Change: ‘Crab Wars’ by William Sargent

Updated: Mar 9

Artists are on the front lines imaging ambiguities of our fragile Earth and its inhabitants:

verbally or figuratively. Beachcombers usually experience dead Horseshoe crabs washed

ashore in tangled seaweed. They walk-on in search of the perfect shell, until reading ‘Crab

Wars: A Tale of Horseshoe Crabs, Ecology, and Human Health” by William Sargent. Bill

Sargent, a consultant for the NOVA Science Series, has been director of the Baltimore

Aquarium, and a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution research assistant. As a boy,

summering on Pleasant Bay, located on Cape Cod’s Atlantic rim as it turns northward, Sargent

acquired a love for ecology, intertwined in the eel grasses of salty wafting marshes.

Horseshoe crabs (in this essay crab means Horseshoes) are actually not crabs, but arachnids.

They go back 450 million years and lay thousands of eggs/mate on sand, when the moon is

full and the tides are high (25-26). North American Horseshoe crabs are found from Maine to

the Yucatán Peninsula; some consider them mere shellfish predators (9, 56). Native

Americans and Colonial farmers used crabs for fertilizer and chicken feed (67).

By 1950, Horseshoe crab populations had severely declined, even before anyone thought of

catching them for medical purposes. In 1977, crabs in Delaware Bay rebounded because the

fertilizer industry had stopped using them (68). Fluctuations occur, but the specie is on a

downward trajectory.

Sargent writes “over a million human lives have been saved by the horseshoe crab test, and

the processed blood of these animals is worth $15,000 a quart. It is used to detect

infinitesimally small quantities of Gram-negative bacteria, which are as ubiquitous in the

natural environment as they are lethal in the human bloodstream. The Food and Drug

Administration now requires that every scalpel, drug, syringe and flu shot be tested with the

horseshoe crab derivative called ‘Limulus’ amoebocyte lysate, LAL, or lysate for short (3).”

This amazing discovery occurred but not without ongoing fallout.

In the early Sixties scientists: Drs. Betsy Bang and Jack Levin, working with Horseshoe crab

blood at Woods Hole Oceanographic ‘discovered a new way to test for bacteria (36)’. Crabs

would replace rabbits bred to be injected with potentially bad bacteria (42). In 1977, the FDA

began licensing lysate, the lucrative by-product of Horseshoe crab blood–identifies deadly Gamma-negative bacteria (52).

Soon pharmaceutical laboratories were

popping-up away from beach shack labs

adjacent to crab habitats: Cape Cod and

Chincoteague Island (44). Sometimes

crabs were transported, other times just

their blood was shipped for processing

(56). An early FDA mandate requiring all

Horseshoe crabs be returned to native waters could be easily ignored. ‘Handling, shipping,

and bleeding’ often kills crabs. (58). Rationalizations--it was time consuming and costly.With

dwindling Horseshoe crabs in Pleasant Bay, a convenient arena for Woods Hole scientists to

extract species, Sargent along with students instigated a program which would return crabs

into the Bay after having been bled (42). Others transferred crabs from one source to another

to compensate declining populations(94-95).

Like the plant in ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ (1982), which needed incessant feeding, so did the

Horseshoe crab industry. Both fisherman (some legitimate, others interstate poachers) and

conservationists played upon a metaphorical seesaw, often winding up in front of commissions

(79-85). The Eighties saw Delaware Bay ‘blue-crab fisherman and oyster dredgers’ using

Horseshoe crabs as cheap bait (68). For years Cape Cod-er Jay Harrington made a decent

wage catching crabs for a lysate company (86-87). Jim Finn, a biologist and small LAL

company owner “realized that collecting horseshoe crabs for both lysate and bait could have a

serious impact on the future of Delaware Bay (79).” Catch 22: Feds handed out low-interest

loans, encouraging fisherman to catch ‘underutilized’ species like Horseshoe crabs (72).

Like the farmer and cowman not being friends in ‘Oklahoma’ (1943), both scientists and

fisherman were causing environmental snafus, competing for the same crabs. Both were

circumventing mandates by way of irregular trafficking: off-hour trucking and off-loading

vessels at unrestricted ports (83). Legal disputes involving fisherman, who wanted no catch

limitations, and laboratories that wanted more and more crabs for bleeding transpired (80).

Federal regulators eventually created the Carl Shuster (pioneering Post-war biologist) 1,500

square mile-sanctuary in the Delaware Bay (71,114). In the early 2000s, a Massachusetts

ruling created reserves in both Cape Cod’s Pleasant (National Seashore) and Monomoy

(National Wildlife Refuge) Bays, but allowed some commercial catching of Horseshoe crabs in

parts of Monomoy (102). Sadly, pharmaceutical companies continue to rely on trucking crabs

from faraway locales, often damaging animals before processing. Many never get put back

into the ocean after bleeding, becoming bait instead (104). However, there continues to be

pressure to make fisherman stop using crabs for bait (114).

Sargent writes, “By 2000 over 2.3 million horseshoe crabs were being harvested every year

for bait, and the East Coast population was starting to decline, as it had in the 1800s....A

Horseshoe crab is worth exponentially more over its lifetime when used for lysate than if it was

killed and chopped up for bait at 75¢ a pound (71).”

Enter migratory Red Knots, with a flight pattern from Tierra del Fuego lowlands to the Arctic

Circle. In early March each bird eats 135,000 Horseshoe crab eggs off Delaware Bay beaches

before flying to the Arctic to nest (75). Diminishing crabs translates to a decline in eggs, which

normally feed migrating Red Knots, who now fly North malnourished, or die in the process


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