Health, Humanity, and the Horseshoe Crab

by Karl Grossman |

CERCOM at Molloy College

For decades, John T. Tanacredi has been a crusader for the survival of horseshoe crabs. He is a world expert on the creatures. Last week he spoke before Long Island Metro Business Action about the plight of horseshoe crabs, concerned about their potential extinction after 455 million years. They predate dinosaurs, he noted, by more than 200 million years, and despite their name, are they not crabs but more closely related to spiders and scorpions.

“They could be on the cusp of going over the cliff of evolutionary extinction,” Dr. Tanacredi explained to the business group in a Zoom presentation last Friday, entitled “Humanity and the Horseshoe Crab.”

A Melville resident, Dr. Tanacredi is director of the Center for Environmental Research and Coastal Oceans Monitoring (CERCOM) of Molloy College of Rockville Centre. CERCOM is located in West Sayville, just across the Great South Bay from Fire Island. He is professor of Earth and Environmental Studies at Molloy, and formerly professor and chairman of the Earth Marine Sciences Department at Dowling College in Oakdale. He holds his doctorate in environmental health engineering from NYU-Polytechnic Institute and has had 50 peer-reviewed scientific papers published and has authored five books. He also is an editor of the book “Biology and Conservation of Horseshoe Crabs.”

Tanacredi’s illustrious background also includes 24 years as a coastal research ecologist for the National Park Service, impact analyst for the U.S. Coast Guard, deputy director of the Aquatic Research and Environmental Assessment Center at Brooklyn College, as well as a chairmanship with the New York Marine Sciences Consortium and also the Suffolk County Wetlands Management Work Group.

Beyond being an ancient component of the natural environment, horseshoe crabs are “critical to humanity – notably for the health of people,” he explained. As they have been indispensable in the testing of vaccinations for COVID-19.

“All these inoculations need to be batch sampled,” he said.

It’s the “true blue blood” of the horseshoe crab that’s the key. The blue color of their blood is derived from having a copper base rather than the iron that is at the foundation of human blood, he noted. The blood of the horseshoe crab is universally utilized for the detection of bacterial endotoxins in medical applications.

The crabs are “harvested” for medical use, bled, the blood collected, and then they are “returned to their environment,” with most of them surviving.

But the horseshoe crab has been facing destruction of its habitat.

“Their main habitat … is the fragile edge we call the barrier beaches,” he said. With construction and other human activities on barrier beaches, this shoreline habitat to which they return somehow to breed in the exact location where they had been born is being increasingly lost.

Tanacredi spoke of spending summers as a boy on beaches in Babylon. “There were tons of eelgrass and tons of horseshoe crabs then.” Now? No horseshoe crabs, he said. “Nothing!”

In the United States, 600,000 horseshoe crabs are harvested every year for medical use, but there is an equal number used for bait. New York State allows 150,000 horseshoe crabs to be taken annually for bait to catch conch or eel, even though alternative baits are available.

In addition, horseshoe crabs are not all over the U.S. but limited to the East Coast from Maine to Florida. Indeed, there are “only four species of horseshoe crabs on Earth.” The four species are on the U.S. East Coast; in the “southern portion of Japan; a portion of Korea; and the southern portion of Taiwan.” Adding further to the threat of horseshoe crab survival: they have become a food delicacy in Asia.

Tanacredi proposed the idea to “declare every beach that has horseshoe crabs off-limits –like we do for piping plovers.” And further advocated in the presentation to cease their collection for bait without delay.

These great ancient creatures have survived five mass extinction events on earth over their hundreds of millions of years of existence, but what now of their future?

About the Author

Karl Grossman

Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the Long Island Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a full professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, the author of six books and for 28 years the host of the nationally-aired TV program "Enviro Close Up with Karl Grossman" (www.envirovideo.com).

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