Horseshoe Crabs: The Real Blue Bloods Of The Hamptons, Vulnerable To Extinction

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Volunteers, members of Cornell Cooperative Extension and the DEC tag horseshoe crabs at Pikes Beach. DANA SHAW

A serpentine path winds through the beachgrass, and volunteers — their feet bare or booted — traverse soft white sand. Cresting a small hill, they take in the view, gnats circling the headlamps they’re wearing.

The setting sun paints the sky orange, dripping gold across gentle waves in Moriches Bay. Soon, a full moon will rise, the reddish orange super flower blood moon.

Conditions are perfect on a warm and still May evening. A pair of swans, gray in the gloaming, glide parallel to shore at the beach’s eastern edge.

The tide’s coming in, and, with it, amorous horseshoe crabs looking to spawn at one of Long Island’s oldest “lovers’ lanes” for these arthropods — Pike’s Beach in West Hampton Dunes. More closely related to spiders than crabs, horseshoe crabs exhibit “habitat fidelity” and often return to the same location to spawn year after year.

“We’re looking for the only true blue bloods in the Hamptons,” quipped Gina Capappiello. Known as “the horseshoe crab lady,” for the last 15 years, she and her husband, Mark, have led teams of volunteers onto the shore and into the water to count and tag the creatures.

Populations at Pike’s have dwindled over the years, Mr. Capappiello said last Thursday night, May 27.

This year and last, the State Department of Environmental Conservation closed the fishery during peak spawning times at the end of May and beginning of June. “I hope that helps,” he says, carrying a newly tagged crab back to the water.

The species, listed as “vulnerable to extinction” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, needs all the help it can get.

Survival of the horseshoe crabs is a public health imperative, Ms. Capappiello insists.

The crab’s unique, copper-based blue blood is used in medical testing for everything from breast implants to heart valves to insulin shots to COVID-19 vaccines. Simply, it has a clotting ability that shows when endotoxins, bacterial contaminants, are present.

For the last 30 years, laboratories have purchased the crabs from fishermen, then “bled” them. The labs claim they return the animals to the water unharmed, though they are often not returned to the place where they were harvested.

Officials estimate a 15 percent mortality rate, but Ms. Capappiello is skeptical. “To bleed them, they stick the needle into the sinus right next to their hearts,” she said. “They keep them out of the water for a day, and people who live nearby say the smell of decaying crabs where the crabs are returned to the water is horrific.”

In Asia, according to the Ecological Research and Development Group, a wildlife organization dedicated to the conservation of horseshoe crabs, the crabs are bled and, if they survive the process, are sold as food. If not, they’re ground up for fertilizer or used in traditional Chinese medicine.

In the United States, horseshoe crabs were harvested annually for fertilizer and livestock feed from the mid-1800s through the early 1900s. Between 1970 and 1990, reported commercial harvest ranged from less than 20,000 pounds to greater than 2 million pounds annually, according to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

Since the mid-to-late-1990s, horseshoe crabs have been used primarily as bait for the American eel and whelk pot fisheries. Increased need for bait in the whelk fishery likely caused an increase in horseshoe crab harvest in the 1990s, with a peak of nearly 6 million pounds in 1997, the fishery commission theorizes on its horseshoe crab fact sheet. A graph compiled by the commission shows a steady increase of landings for biomedical use beginning in 2004.

There are alternatives to horseshoe crab blood, the research and development group asserts. “There are alternative and sustainable methods available for those pharmaceutical, medical device, and dialysis companies willing to embrace sustainable, animal-friendly innovations in endotoxin detection,” according to the group’s website, horseshoecrab.org.

The DNA for one of the crab’s clotting factors has been cloned and could be manufactured synthetically. A study by researchers from Revive and Restore, a wildlife conservation organization promoting the incorporation of biotechnologies into standard conservation practice, published in PLOS Biology, a monthly scientific journal, confirmed the biomedical industry could reduce the use of horseshoe crab blood by 90 percent through the use of a synthetic alternative.

Horseshoe Crabs mating at Pikes Beach on May 24. DANA SHAW

“This represents an extraordinary opportunity for the biomedical and pharmaceutical industries to significantly contribute to the conservation of horseshoe crabs and the birds that depend on them,” authors Tom Maloney, Ryan Phelan, and Naira Simmons wrote.

Six species of shorebirds time their northward migration to synch with the availability of HSC eggs in Delaware Bay, and our bays. Over 1 million birds make the trip along what’s known as the Atlantic flyway. They gorge on the eggs, then continue on to Arctic nesting grounds. Delaware Bay hosts the largest concentration of spawning horseshoe crabs on the Atlantic Coast each year, with surveys estimating 300,000 to 1.3 million horseshoe crabs annually coming ashore.

Back at Pike’s Beach, the sun has dipped below the horizon and it’s a veritable orgy at the water’s edge. Mating pairs can be visited by other males looking to fertilize eggs, forming clumps of as many as four creatures latching together.

Erin Finley, and her daughters Taylor and Sidney Blydenburgh, were new to the tagging process, but caught on quickly. Mom used huge calipers to measure, determined the crab’s sex by checking its front pincers, and assessed the condition of its shell.

Shell condition may be used to determine age, Ms. Capappiello explained. “If it’s old and crusty like Mark, give it a 3,” she said. “Young like me is a 1.”

Once Taylor logged the data, Sidney took over. Picking the creature up in one hand, she used a cordless drill to get through the shell, then inserted the tag. Family friends Iris Keitel and Michael Allen were runners, who’d gently return the tagged crab to the water, and find another for tagging.

At first, August Ruckdeschel of Patchogue felt uncertain about plucking the foursomes or pairs out of the water. But, he got used to it and has come out to Pike’s for past counts. “You can go in and get them,” he told hesitant volunteers. The event, he said, was a great way to get out in the evening. He found out about it through friends at Cornell Cooperative Extension, which oversees the tagging events on Long Island.

That’s not all Cornell is doing to help the imperiled arthropods. Earlier this year, the extension received funding to pursue trials of synthetic baits designed by Kepley BioSystems in North Carolina.

With funding from Seatuck Environmental and the Long Island Sierra Club, scientists will partner with baymen to try out bait pucks that could replace horseshoe crabs for eel and whelk fishermen.

Lee Robertson, director of scientific communications and operations for Kepley, explained that thanks to funding from NC Sea Grant, Kepley scientists were able to analyze the decay process for forage fish, to determine what chemicals trigger the scavenging instinct.

“The National Science Foundation believed in the work enough to fund us to move the project forward for further development, commercialization and manufacture,” he said.

Mark Capappiello returns a tagged horseshoe crab to the water. KITTY MERRILL

“We began speaking with fishing participants and finding the pain points of traditional bait (such as needing refrigeration, changing availability, fluctuating costs), and we set out to design a bait to provide an alternative to this natural resource that would also solve these issues. We tried to work closely with industry professionals in every step, and eventually word got out and some whelk and eel fishermen reached out to us to see if the bait would work in their fishery, which traditionally use a horseshoe crab to bait their traps,” Mr. Robertson explained.

Upon learning that the horseshoe crab’s uses stretch far beyond bait for whelk and eels, “We began working to develop ways of husbanding these creatures to more humanly source that substance and reduce our reliance on wild stocks,” he continued.

OrganoBait works by releasing those same chemical attractant cues that come off forage fish as they decay in a trap.

“You know how humans walk by a coffee shop, get a whiff of delicious roasted bean aroma and they just have to have one? It’s much the same for crabs and lobsters, except with something much stinkier,” Mr. Robertson said.

If they get a hit of a certain smell (or chemical cue) in their “antennae” modules, it triggers their foraging instinct and makes them seek it out. “Basically, we discovered those chemicals through analytical research and figured out a way to place them in a matrix that would fit in current traps and time-release the attractants to match a fisheries’ methods,” the communications director said.

The result was a dissolvable “hockey puck-like calcium matrix” that can be calibrated to work in different fisheries, such as stone crab in Florida, blue crab in North Carolina and the Chesapeake, and lobster in the northeast.

“Our goal would be to develop a similar product that would replace horseshoe crabs as use for bait, much in a similar way as we did it for forage fish,” Mr. Robertson concluded.

The idea of a synthetic bait isn’t new, Scott Curatolo-Wagemann of the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County’s Marine Program said.

Years ago, an artificial bait that used less horseshoe crab was trialed in Rhode Island and Connecticut, then mass produced in New Jersey, but it wasn’t effective, he said. “This is something that’s been kicking around a long time,” his partner, Dr. Matthew Sclafani agreed.

Throughout the winter, the pair have been conducting tank studies with the bait pucks and are now getting ready to get out into the field.

Southampton Town Trustee Ed Warner Jr. spoke with The Press about horseshoe crabs last winter. “I’m the father of a conch fisherman,” he said. Old timers call whelk conch. “I’m familiar with using them for bait.”

“The horseshoe crab population has really dropped over my lifetime in the bays,” the 61-year old said. Twenty years ago, you’d drop a pot and go get it the next day. Nowadays, he advised, you have to leave it a couple of days.

“As a trustee and a bayman, I want a sustainable harvest … I like to consider myself someone who thinks outside the box, so I support this.”

He pointed out that pending legislation calling for conch size limits could directly affect the horseshoe crabs. “It could be a game changer,” he said.

It’s getting busy on the tarp where Ms. Capappiello is working with Rachel Hersh and her two sons, Jude and Shayd, and her nephew, Avery Hoda.

Ms. Hersh was on recording duties as Jude and Avery share measuring tasks

Shayd has ranged far down the beach with friend Heather Dune Macadam who returns, her arms laden. “Honey, grab these,” she directs husband Simon Worrall

Watching a horseshoe crab in the shallows, it seems to float lazily along the mud, a mammoth in slow motion. On land, they’re very active, on their backs with legs flailing and flipped over, trying to hurry back to the water. Volunteers had to hold them still for measuring, some at first worried about the tail, until they learned it was harmless. Volunteers tagged 100 crabs last Thursday night, 1,200 altogether so far this season at the site.

They’ll only come up to nest when conditions are just right — the water is warm enough, waves are low enough. Mr. Capappiello marveled at the crabs’ uncanny ability to know exactly when to come ashore. Peering across the gray and gold water last Thursday night before the influx, he said, “They’re just out there, waiting.”

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