Pride of the Sea: A Fisherman’s Role in Patient Safety
We harvest horseshoe crabs for their blue blood, and then return them alive to their natural habitats
I started out in commercial fishing working for my dad in Beaufort, South Carolina in the 1970s fishing for blue crab, shrimp, soft shell crabs, and octopi. Quite frequently, horseshoe crabs would get tangled up in our nets and interfered with our daily hauls, becoming a nuisance, so we would sell them off for bait. One day, a gentleman in a suit and tie, Dr. James Cooper, knocked on our door and asked us if we’d be willing to stop selling horseshoe crabs for bait and sell them to him for biomedical research instead. And that’s how it all began.
At the beginning of the mating season in April, my crew harvests hundreds of horseshoe crabs so a small percentage of their blood can be collected. They are then returned alive to their natural habitat that very same day.
Why do we participate in these marine blood drives? The distinctive blue blood of the horseshoe crab contains a vital extract known as Limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL) that biopharmaceutical manufacturers rely on to ensure vaccines, injectable drugs, and implantable medical devices are free of bacterial endotoxins, a harmful toxin that can lead to organ failure and even death. Over 80 million tests are dependent on this natural resource.
Horseshoe Crabs Help Save Lives
Fishermen got intimately involved in this process over 45 years ago, after the US Food and Drug Administration approved the LAL test to screen for endotoxins. Until that point, those of us making a living on the sea saw no interest in this species, as they had no value in fish markets or in culinary circles. But thanks to a growing body of research with LAL, our attitudes changed, and we began to see that these creatures hold a tremendous value for humanity.
The good news is that in the same way humans donate blood and continue with their daily lives, so do the crabs. Once they "donate" their blue blood they are returned to the wild unharmed. Patients benefit from both our blood donations as well as the horseshoe crabs’ blue blood. As we are the first human contact with these animals, it’s imperative we treat them humanely and care for them as if our lives depend on them, because they do. Years and years of research have proven the blood of the horseshoe crab to be the most sensitive and accurate method available, and with over 80 million tests depending on this creature, their safety and protection remain a top priority for me and my team.
It's the most honorable fishing we do, and we have a moral duty, and a legal responsibility to collect and handle horseshoe crabs with the utmost respect and care. In South Carolina, which has the toughest horseshoe crab conservation laws in the world, we are not allowed to sell the crabs for bait (not the case in Massachusetts) and all of us in the fishery business are required to have permits to harvest the crabs (which wasn't the case 30 years ago). And let me tell you, our state Department of Natural Resources' law enforcement division is serious. They play GI Joe, hiding in the bushes and observing us to ensure we handle the crabs properly: no grabbing of the tail, no tossing of crabs in a manner that may injure them, and ensuring the crabs are fully covered during transport. The biomedical lab will not accept an injured horseshoe crab, so we have a financial stake in how we handle them and to make sure their population remains robust.
Horseshoe Crab Conservation
Over the past 45 years, I have seen many changes with respect to the political landscape, the conservation movement, and the fisheries, not to mention the wisdom that comes with age and experience. As a commercial fisherman, it is in my political best interest to think and act in a responsible manner to ensure sustainable fisheries. Meaningful and well thought out conservation regulations are a part of the actions necessary to ensure sustainable fisheries and I believe these efforts are one reason why the horseshoe crab population, at least in South Carolina, is thriving compared to other states along the Eastern seaboard.
This is not to say there aren't other pressures that could possibly be detrimental to the horseshoe crab. Real estate development is a prime example. Large rocks and sea walls have been added to the shoreline of beautiful Hilton Head to prevent beach erosion and damage to multi-million-dollar homes. This has not been beneficial to the horseshoe crab, though. That beach is a historical area for spawning and the crabs can become trapped and stranded in the rocks. Seven years ago, I went over and rescued 500 crabs that had gotten caught there.
I am mindful of all these factors as I get ready to head out to the beach, at dusk, in search of crabs. They have their job to do, and so do I. It’s our annual rite of passage. We fishermen have a lot of respect for them. Unlike seafood products that are just caught and consumed, the beautiful blue blood of the horseshoe crab protects millions of patients around the world. They are valued members of our society, and I’m proud to contribute to their well-being.
Check out this site to learn more about Charles River's horseshoe crab conservation.