Horseshoe crabs need your help

Horseshoe crabs are an ancient species. They’ve been around since the Paleozoic period, long before humans came along, but have survived for millions of years to live alongside us.

Every year around this time, tens of thousands of horseshoe crabs visit our shores to spawn. Sadly, many die when they become stranded upside down.

“You’d be hard pressed to find another species that’s been around for 470 million years … that’s survived five great extinctions, one of which wiped out 95 percent of all marine life,” said Glenn Gauvry, founder and director of the Ecological Research and Development Group, a nonprofit Delaware wildlife conservation organization. They are the only ecological organization in the world that focuses on horseshoe crabs.

Their “Just flip ‘em!” program urges people who come across stranded horseshoe crabs to turn them over.

“They’re called a crab but they’re not really crabs at all,” Gauvry said. “Those pincers do not hurt. You could stick your face in their belly and it wouldn’t hurt you. They’re very gentle animals.”

Horseshoe crabs might not seem to have a lot to offer, at first glance, but they’re far from useless. In fact, their blood has played an integral role in medical safety by helping humans identify the presence of endotoxins, and their eggs are an essential source of food for migratory birds.

“If you were walking down the beach and there were some dogs or cats that were stranded, you wouldn’t think twice about giving them a helping hand, but because these animals are unfamiliar to us and they look a little scary, we tend to look at them with indifference,” Gauvry said. “You are saving a life by flipping them over. It’s a simple act of compassion.”

But horseshoe crabs have had hundreds of millions of years to evolve. Why can’t they flip themselves over?

“Horseshoe crabs have solved an awful lot of problems by throwing volume at them,” Gauvry said. “A female will lay 100,000 eggs a season and 95 percent of them will hatch out. As long as they’re not unsustainably harvested by humans … the 10 percent of them that die stranded on the beach is an acceptable percentage.”

When humans interfere, that 10 percent becomes unacceptable.

The Delaware Bay is home to the largest population of spawning horseshoe crabs in the world. According to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, horseshoe crab harvesting, primarily for bait, peaked in 1997 at six million.

“What’s under control now is the harvesting along the Atlantic coast, by fishing regulations. That’s being managed,” Gauvry said. “Loss of habitat is one of the greatest risks they face now. That’s not regulated. People want to build homes and bulkheads, and there’s coastline hardening and over-development for economic gain, and all that [nibbles] into their spawning habitat.”