The Decision To Stop Harvesting Horseshoe Crabs For Their Blood Could Help An Entire Ecosystem

Source: Hakai Magazine/Lindsey Konkel 

Photo: Billy Redd/Unsplash

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Pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company recently announced that it would reduce its use of limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL) by 90 percent over the next few years, the first company to phase out the naturally derived compound in favor of a synthetic alternative. Until now, LAL has been a vital component of modern medicine as it is used to detect the presence of bacterial toxins in pharmaceuticals, vaccines, and medical devices. But harvesting this life-saving compound comes at a cost. LAL is extracted from the blood of horseshoe crabs, and tens of thousands may die annually as a result.

Each year, approximately half a million Atlantic horseshoe crabs are bled by the biomedical industry to extract LAL. Scientists know alarmingly little about the ecological impacts of harvesting horseshoe crabs for medicinal purposes, says Walker Golder at the National Audubon Society. The crabs are released back to the ocean after the procedure, but experts estimate that from five to 30 percent of the crabs ultimately die. And these deaths have far-reaching consequences because dead horseshoe crabs can’t spawn.

On east coast beaches during the extreme high tides of May and early June, horseshoe crabs crawl ashore to perform an ancient spawning ritual, collectively depositing millions of eggs into holes dug in the sand. Those eggs underpin the diets of a range of coastal species.

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Photo: Billy Redd/Unsplash

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