Horseshoe Crabs’ Blue Blood: A Lifeline for Medicine and Critical Sustenance for a Declining Bird Species


A primordial sea creature that inhabits the East Coast’s tidal mudflats and is essential to the production of vital medications stands to benefit from new protection standards. However, conservationists who have spent years attempting to save a declining bird dependent on horseshoe crabs, the red knot, fear the protections are insufficient.

Drug and medical device manufacturers rely on the valuable blue blood of crabs — helmet-shaped invertebrates that have lived in the ocean and tidal basins for over 400 million years to test for potentially harmful impurities. The animals are drained of an amount of their blood and restored to their natural habitats, but many die as a result of the hemorrhaging.

According to regulators, recent revisions to the handling guidelines should help keep more animals alive throughout the procedure. The animals, which are more closely related to land-dwelling invertebrates such as spiders and scorpions than to true crabs, are declining along a portion of the East Coast.

The extraction of horseshoe crabs, which are also used as bait in the commercial fishing industry, has become a pressing concern for conservationists in recent years due to the animal’s importance to coastal ecosystems. Red knot, a rust-colored, migratory shorebird listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, depends on crab embryos as a primary food source.

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Horseshoe Crabs: Unseen Heroes in Biomedical Industry

Photo by: Marvin Joseph via The Washington Post

Horseshoe crabs are valuable because their blood can be used to produce limulus amebocyte lysate, or LAL, which is used to detect microorganisms in essential drugs such as injectable antibiotics. Fishermen collect crustaceans by hand or with trawl nets for use by biomedical companies, then separate their blood and process the proteins within their white blood cells. It takes dozens of crabs to generate enough blood to fill a single glass tube with blood containing bacteria-sensitive immune cells.

However, in May, the fisheries commission authorized new best management practices for the harvesting and handling of crabs in the biomedical industry. He stated that the crucial role of horseshoe crabs to the pharmaceutical supply chain and coastal ecosystem requires their protection.

From the Gulf of Maine to Florida, the Atlantic horseshoe crab, the species harvested on the East Coast, can be found. The International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies the species as vulnerable according to a 2016 assessment. Delaware Bay, an estuary of the Delaware River between Delaware and New Jersey, is one of the most significant ecosystems for horseshoe crabs. Within the estuary, crabs reproduce and red knots feed.

The density of horseshoe crab embryos in the estuary is nowhere near what it was in the 1990s, according to former New Jersey governor Lawrence Niles, endangered species program and an independent wildlife biologist. Niles stated that the birds require effective protection of horseshoe crab eggs in order to recover. He monitors the health of red knots and horseshoe crabs and has established the Horseshoe Crab Recovery Coalition to promote conservation measures.

Since the 1980s, Niles and the volunteers he coordinates have been counting horseshoe crab eggs and labeling birds. As he concluded this year’s monitoring in southern New Jersey in mid-June, he characterized the eggs as good and consistent throughout the month. Over the years, horseshoe crabs have been harvested from Florida to Maine for use as bait and medicine, with the greatest harvests occurring in Maryland, Delaware, Massachusetts, and Virginia. According to federal fishery statistics, the crabs’ total value at the piers in 2021 was approximately $1.1 million.

Species of crustaceans such as lobsters and scallops are routinely worth hundreds of millions of dollars, dwarfing this amount. George Topping, a Maryland fisherman, remarked that horseshoe crab fishermen are devoted custodians of a fishery that provides a crucial product.

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Source: The Seattle Times, ABC News

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