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Horseshoe crabs gain protections under new state rules

Mark Faherty

New state regulations limit how horseshoe crabs can be harvested by the bait fishery and biomedical industry, but conservationists say the efforts don’t go far enough to protect the bottom-dwellers.

The regulations will cap biomedical harvesting at 200,000 horseshoe crabs annually. It’s the first time the state has set any limit on the industry that uses horseshoe crab blood to to check the safety of pharmaceuticals, vaccines, prosthetics, and other tools used in the medical field. 

“Capping total horseshoe crab harvest and mortality is likely the single most important conservation measure the state can take this year,” said Division of Marine Fisheries Director Dan McKiernan in a statement. “This eliminates the potential for uncontrolled growth in the biomedical fishery, which could negatively impact the resource moving forward.”

The regulations also reduce the number of horseshoe crabs that can be harvested as bait each year to 140,000, down 25,000 from past quotas.

But Maureen Ward, board member of the Horseshoe Crab Conservation Association, says the practice of harvesting horseshoe crabs for bait should be banned outright.

“We'd like to see the bait industry go away. For a species that contributes so much to our health and well-being, to use it as bait seems wasteful.” 

Furthermore, she said, all spawning horseshoe crabs should be exempt from harvesting. 

“It's really important to sustain the biomedical industry. But we now have two of the world's largest biomedical companies in Massachusetts, and we don't have one or two of the largest populations along the East Coast.”

The Massachusetts-based biomedical company, Charles River Laboratory, said it partners closely with state regulators to ensure its work on Cape Cod supports a sustainable horseshoe crab population.

“Horseshoe crabs provide LAL, a critical component of the biopharmaceutical supply chain that safeguards patients,” Sam Jorgensen, the company’s director of public relations, said in a statement. “We will continue to work with federal, state and local wildlife and resource management agencies to balance humanity’s need for this valuable resource with the need to protect the crabs that provide it.”

The horseshoe crab population has steadily increased since 2010, state officials say, but the animals are increasingly threatened.

"Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, they have 10 to 100 times more [horseshoe] crabs than we have and their regulations are stricter than ours,” said Maureen Ward’s husband, Paul Ward, who is also a board member of the Horseshoe Crab Conservation Association. 

“So they recognize the value in protecting the species. And Massachusetts has really lagged behind.”  

After filing the final regulations with the Secretary of State on July 7, officials said, they will become effective for this year on July 21.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.