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Federal Judge Halts Blood Harvest of Horseshoe Crabs

Conservation groups applauded a judge's decision to block a pharmaceutical company from harvesting horseshoe crab blood in South Carolina for use in vaccine development.

CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) — A federal judge on Wednesday blocked the planned blood harvest of thousands of horseshoe crabs in a South Carolina wildlife refuge until a lawsuit seeking to require the practice be conducted sustainably is resolved.

Defenders of Wildlife and the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a motion in March seeking to stop a pharmaceutical company’s practice of harvesting horseshoe crabs for their blood as they come ashore to lay eggs each spring in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Court Judge Bruce H. Hendricks released a 29-page opinion granting the groups’ motion for a preliminary injunction and halting a planned harvest while the case is pending.

The Atlantic horseshoe crab is a protected species and critical contributor to biomedical research. Medical researchers value the arthropod’s milky-blue blood because it is the only known natural source of limulus amebocyte lysate —a substance that can detect dangerous endotoxins in drugs and vaccines. 

Recently, the aquatic blood donors have played a key role in the development of coronavirus vaccines and ensuring their safety from toxins for millions of people. 

But the conservation groups claim the blood harvesting, which is carried out by contractors for defendant Charles River Laboratories International, is detrimental to the ecosystem. 

Additionally, the environmentalists say the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in authorizing the harvest, failed to consider or study the effects on threatened migratory birds that depend on crab eggs “to fuel their grueling journeys.”

Hendricks found that the groups established that the public interest weighs in favor of a preliminary injunction.

“First, because endangered and threatened species are at issue, the court agrees that the equitable scales tip in their favor. Second, Congress has tasked the service with the management of wildlife refuges, and the public certainly has an interest in the service complying with the applicable regulations,” the Obama-appointed judge wrote.

Hendricks noted that the company’s contractors can still operate in the refuge by applying for special permits.

In South Carolina, horseshoe crabs can only be harvested for biomedical use, rather than for bait or other purposes. 

According to the Atlantic fisheries commission, about 15% of horseshoe crabs immediately die from the bleeding process.

“Today’s ruling, which concluded that Cape Romain wildlife would be irreparably harmed by the harvest, brings much-needed relief for the refuge and the many species that depend on a healthy horseshoe crab population,” said Lindsay Dubin, staff attorney at Defenders of Wildlife. 

“For years, Charles River has exploited the refuge while the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service has turned a blind eye,” Dubin added. 

Charles River Laboratories did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Catherine Wannamaker, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement on Wednesday that the organization is pleased with the court’s decision. 

“This is a federal wildlife refuge, and the very federal agency in charge of protecting it is not doing what it is mandated to do,” Wannamaker said. "And that is ensuring nothing upsets nature’s delicate balance in this pristine area. A commercial crab harvest that harms threatened birds definitely upsets the natural balance.”

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