Judge Asked to Stop Harvest of Horseshoe Crabs for Blood

The arthropod’s milky-blue blood contains a substance that can detect dangerous endotoxins in drugs and vaccines, which has played a key role in recent coronavirus vaccine development.  

Horseshoe crabs. (Photo by Chris Engel from Pixabay via Courthouse News)

CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) — Environmental advocates asked a federal judge Friday to block the planned blood harvest of thousands of horseshoe crabs in a South Carolina wildlife refuge.

The conservation groups, Defenders of Wildlife and Southern Environmental Law Center, say in a motion for a preliminary injunction that a pharmaceutical company’s practice of harvesting horseshoe crabs as they come ashore to lay their eggs each spring in the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge is detrimental to the ecosystem. 

“This harvest of horseshoe crabs is illegal and should not be allowed to continue one more year,” Catherine Wannamaker, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, said in a statement.

The Atlantic horseshoe crab is a protected species and a longtime contributor to biomedical research. The arthropod’s milky-blue blood is revered by medical researchers 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 said Friday the harvesting of these marine critters can hurt other species and the draining of their blood by labs can kill up to 30% of the horseshoe crabs used. 

“It puts in peril not only the horseshoe crabs, but the migratory birds that need the crab eggs to survive their long flights. We’re asking the court to step in and stop this prohibited practice,” Wannamaker said.

The groups asked the judge to grant a preliminary injunction to stop commercial harvesting activities conducted by contractors for a pharmaceutical company called Charles River Labs, whose contractors operate around the refuge.

“The refuge, which was designed for the very purpose of protecting migratory birds like the red knot, no longer contains a sufficient number of horseshoe crab eggs to sustain migratory shorebird populations,” the 35-page motion filed in Charleston federal court states.

Attorneys for the environmentalists added that the number of red knots and other shorebirds that use the wild refuge is in a “dangerous decline.”

Because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service authorizes the crab harvesting, the agency was listed as a defendant in the case along with Charles River Labs.

A spokesperson for the pharmaceutical company could not be immediately reached. Its website states that the demand for limulus amebocyte lysate, or LAL, has actually helped the horseshoe crab.

“The biomedical industry’s need for the horseshoe crab has, in fact, driven the development of laws to protect the animal. Their best security is the biomedical industry’s continued reliance on them. Without the need for LAL, the legal protection for the horseshoe crab is not guaranteed, and they would again fall prey to overfishing and use as bait for eel and whelk,” the website states.

But Lindsay Dubin, staff attorney with Defenders of Wildlife, said the company “is imperiling species while profiting off our public lands.”

“This annual harvest presents a clear and present danger to numerous vulnerable species and drastically undermines the refuge’s mission,” Dubin said in a statement. 

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