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2016-2022 Book Reads > Crab Wars by William Sargent

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message 1: by Jimmy (last edited Aug 28, 2020 03:07PM) (new)

Jimmy | 1589 comments Mod
I have not been keeping up with this folder for a while. Here is the next book I will be reading and sharing:

Crab Wars: A Tale of Horseshoe Crabs, Bioterrorism, and Human Health by William Sargent. It was published in 2002. It has a new Postscript by the author in 2006.

I do not worry about spoilers. Anyone can join in whether or not they are reading the book. I welcome updated information on horseshoe crabs.

message 2: by Jimmy (new)

message 3: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy | 1589 comments Mod

It opens with an interesting mention of John Steinbeck collecting marine animals. Steinbeck didn't think it mattered if living things were removed from tidal pools or if fishing boats dredged up tons of shrimp. He wrote about how all of it is important or none of it was important at all.

We now know the damage that humans are doing to the environment. That is the reason for this group on Goodreads.

Hopefully, we can agree that all of it is important rather than none of it.

message 4: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy | 1589 comments Mod

Sargent wrote the book just after 9/11. You can imagine him questioning if it was worth writing at that time. He felt he "was doing something important." He was "honoring an animal that has saved a million more human lives than died in the World Trade Center." He was trying to show that "all life was related."

message 5: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy | 1589 comments Mod
Part I: Early Lessons: Introduction.

In 1956, Dr. Frederik Bang noticed that the death of a horseshoe crab in his laboratory "was uncommonly like that of rabbits injected with Gram-negative bacteria."

I can't help but wonder what they did to rabbits in laboratories. I am not a fan of speciesism even if it benefits humanity.

The book was published in 2002. At that time "over a million lives had been saved by the horseshoe crab test, and the processed blood of these animals is worth over $15,000 a quart. It is used to detect infinitesimally small quantities of Gram-negative bacteria." The FDA now requires that "every scalpel, drug, syringe, and flu shot be tested with the horseshoe crab derivative called Limulus amoeboecyte lysate, or lysate for short."

Producing lysate became a multimillion-dollar industry headquartered in Boston, Tokyo, and Chicago.

The problem: "Little attention has been paid to the unique animals that have made it all happen. Today the industry is plagued by overfishing, dwindling stocks, problems with endangered species, and regulatory uncertainty."

message 6: by Jimmy (last edited Aug 28, 2020 03:23PM) (new)

Jimmy | 1589 comments Mod
Here is a hopeful 2018 article in The Atlantic about the efforts to not harm animals:

message 7: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy | 1589 comments Mod
I do find the photo of the horseshoe crabs being "bled" in The Atlantic article a bit disturbing. It appears cruel to me.

message 8: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy | 1589 comments Mod
This 2019 article talks about how the bloodletting works, and the efforts to save the horseshoe crab.

message 9: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy | 1589 comments Mod
This site gives the pharmacy side of the story.

message 10: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy | 1589 comments Mod
Chapter 1: A Day in the Life of a Hunter-Gatherer

Page 9: Sargent talks about his early life on Cape Cod where killing horseshoe crabs was "sanctioned" because everyone was "raised to believe that the only good crab is a dead crab." Most towns had "bounties on horseshoe crabs because they were considered to be predators on shellfish."

Children were "encouraged to catch any horseshoe crab they can find, wrench off its tail, and throw it above the high tide mark. The tails can be turned in to the shellfish warden for a penny a tail or so."

Sargent himself describes smashing the shells with oars when they found any. The family dog was encouraged to catch them as well.

message 11: by Robert (new)

Robert Zwilling | 2057 comments I grew up around horse shoe crabs at the beach when I was young. Ignorant people killed them, smart people killed them, rich people at the country club and ordinary people at the city beach next door killed them or let them be. Many people were afraid of being stung by the tail which had no stinger, only a dull point. I guess they thought the horseshoe crabs could fly out of the water. Others just stood by and marveled at their unique beauty or stepped back not too sure of what the creature might do, or just ignored them.

They come in close to shore occasionally or can get stuck in a tide pool when the tide goes out. They come up on the beach during mating season and lay their eggs. It was just one more sea creature that had no rights to existence. There was a big pier and people would be fishing all day long, reeling in their catches, some of it to be eaten. Sometimes small crabs caught robbing the bait off the hook would be thrown back in, other times smashed under foot for the high crime of bait stealing. No big deal.

Weeks after the female male pairs of mating horseshoe crabs swam around shore, the eggs hatched, and trhe little horsheshoe crabs started growing. There would be sheddings of the outside hard shells of their bodies washing up on the beach every day. They grow in stages, not continually, and each step of the way to the next size, they shed a thin copy of the shell. The small sheddings are very fragile but as they get bigger the sheddings get thicker and stronger. The number of sheddings you could find along the beach always dwindled to fever and fewer as the summer dragged on and the size of the sheddings got bigger and bigger. I always hoped they had swam far away and so their were fewer local horseshoe crabs to shed their shells.

I later learned they were ancient animals left over from the dinosaur age, 330 million years ago. They did perfectly fine until people arrived on the scene. They had strange copper based blood. It would be many years later that I ran across an article talking about dwindling numbers and how some companies were taking extra steps to insure the survival of the horseshoe crabs when their blood was being harvested.

While they don't come back to the same beach to spawn, the numbers that do show up are a fraction of the numbers that used to be seen, and the discarded sheddings washing up on the beach are few and far between now.

message 12: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy | 1589 comments Mod
Thanks so much for sharing that story, Robert.

message 13: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy | 1589 comments Mod
European Green Crab

I do know about one invasive species of crab. Here is an article about the european green crab. I saw one once eating a flounder that a science group on a boat caught. Here is one article:

message 14: by Robert (new)

Robert Zwilling | 2057 comments I have seen green crabs all my life at our beaches. And blue ones, pink ones, tan ones, red ones, brown ones, black ones. Over 60 years ago, they were the dominant crab species you would find. The other colors were there but always harder to find. I am sure that if I were to look today, there would be even fewer of the other color crabs compared to the green ones.

When I was very young, we had all kinds of birds that were different colors and multi-colors. Plenty of them so you could see them everyday of every color, red, yellow, blue, gray, green. About 50 years ago, it became very noticeable that most of the brightly colored birds were gone. Still had black birds, brown birds, but few multicolored birds. The crabs are probably in the same boat. We think there is plenty of diversity to the land or beaches, but in fact, because of the direct results of our life styles, the diversity of the lands and beaches was cut down to a bare minimum 50 years ago. This cut down on the diversity of the natural wild life.

I don't think the ocean works the same way as the land when it comes to invasive species. I suspect because it is far easier to move in the water world than it is on the land world that population shifts in the oceans are not invasive at all.

A lot of the current ocean population shift is caused by the rising ocean temperatures and changing currents and other weather conditions. The ocean populations can move at will depending on the conditions. They won't stay where it is too warm. What we see at the seashore may really be climate driven at all times, even when things were "normal."

Since none of the ocean populations had anything to do with changing conditions, vast amounts of movements are natural movements. From our point of view, the changing animal populations might be unnatural or unwanted, but for the animals and plants, the ocean is one vast highway where natural rules always rule.

On the land it is a different situation. Much of the shifting land populations is caused by mankind physically moving them or causing them to move based on some kind of "unnatural" reason, based solely on human desires. This started long before the climate was noticeably changing. This gave land species that had no way of moving somewhere in a million years a way to to get there in a matter of years.

You would think the air world would be the same as the ocean world with free unrestricted movement. But that is not the case. Most birds still have to rely on the land after flying anywhere they can. The land houses them, feeds them, and provides shelter for them to reproduce. When mankind, maybe that word should be manugly, removes the trees, bushes, plants, streams, animals and insects from a section of land, it is no longer hospitable for birds. Sure there are a few species that are adapting to the manicured lands of the cities, but only a few, and the numbers and diversity are not great compared to natural populations in truly wild conditions.

When Margaret Atwood wants to rail on about cats, I am sure that all the modern conveniences she uses, starting with electricity, housing, transportation of anything she uses, and the actions of all her readers, is far more responsible for removing far more bird species from this planet than cats are. The cats don't uproot billions of acres of natural plant life and convert it into sterilized oases fit only for people and even then, that is an illusion.

Hopefully the changing ocean conditions will not cause the demise of the horseshoe crabs. That would have a huge impact on mankind. It could be, any ocean animal that relies on the land, might be in for some troubles, if the new beaches they end up on are inhospitable for their continued existence.

message 15: by Jimmy (last edited Aug 30, 2020 06:29PM) (new)

Jimmy | 1589 comments Mod
Chapter 1, Page 10

Sargent thinks that his hunter-gatherer days behavior was necessary "to the true development of biological curiosity." Young people need the chance to discover nature for themselves.

I know that is what happened to me. I caught snakes, salamanders, frogs. I explored swamps and forests. I learned to love nature. Yet virtually all of the places I explored as a boy are now developed. They have been completely destroyed. Even the baseball fields where I played with my friends. I look at the condos and think of all the kids who will never know what it feels like to search for snakes like I loved to do.

message 16: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy | 1589 comments Mod
Chapter 2: Carl Shuster [July 14, 1953]

We get a glimpse of Woods Hole scientist Carl Shuster making discoveries about horseshoe crabs on Cape Cod. That type of thing was the first job I ever wanted to have as a boy.

message 17: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy | 1589 comments Mod
Chapter 3: First Lessons 1956

Shuster as a young boy learns that not all boys appreciate the animals he finds in the ocean. A group of boys kill all the crabs they can find.

I remember similar experiences. Once an older boy took a harmless northern brown snake and snapped it. I could do nothing but it bothered me a lot. I would never kill any snake. They are not as prolific as they were when I was a boy. Another time I remember some boys smashing frogs at a pond. Those were cruel awakenings about how people treat nature. I have always encouraged the children in my life to appreciate all of nature.

message 18: by Clare (new)

Clare O'Beara | 6283 comments Mod
Thanks gentlemen, for sharing your stories as well as reading the book.
While I have not seen a horseshoe crab myself, I have seen the odd documentary, and read articles.
The main book I've read on the topic is:
The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey
The Narrow Edge A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab, and an Epic Journey by Deborah Cramer
by Deborah Cramer
This 2015 book published by Yale University Press describes the balance between the tiny shore bird, the red knot, and its feasting on crab eggs. During the year, the knot migrates from top to bottom of the Americas, and the crab egg glut gives the flocks energy to reproduce.

The two main reasons given in that book for the decline of horseshoe crabs were people collecting them by the lorryload and train load to be burnt for fertiliser; this was shipped to inland states.
And fishermen using the crabs as bait, especially in lobster pots. The science community worked with local fishermen recently and established that just as many lobsters were caught if a sixth of a crab was used rather than a whole crab per pot.

With the bleeding crabs for medical use of blood, the lab was supposed to take males or females not carrying eggs, and not to bleed a crab more than once a year; however they did not mark crabs they had bled, so nobody knew if the same crabs were being caught.

message 19: by Clare (new)

Clare O'Beara | 6283 comments Mod
Reposting from our thread on coronavirus:

Horseshoe crab blood will be used in ensuring Covid-19 vaccines are safe - but these creatures are greatly reduced in number, and the other wildlife dependent upon this key species are suffering.

"Catching crabs and harvesting their blood is time-consuming, and the resulting lysate costs £48,000 per gallon. In 2016, a synthetic alternative to crab lysate, recombinant factor C (rFC), was approved as an alternative in Europe, and a handful of U.S. drug companies also began using it.

But on June 1, 2020, the American Pharmacopeia, which sets the scientific standards for drugs and other products in the U.S., declined to place rFC on equal footing with crab lysate, claiming that its safety is still unproven."

"A written statement from Lonza says that testing the company’s COVID-19 vaccine will not require more than a day’s worth of lysate production from the three U.S. manufacturers.

One of those three—Charles River Laboratories, based in Massachusetts—gave National Geographic the same statistic. The laboratory’s John Dubczak explained in an email that to make five billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, 600,000 tests will be performed, which will use the amount of lysate created in a single day.

“This places no undue burden on the [lysate] supply chain or horseshoe crab populations,” said Dubczak, executive director of reagent development and pilot program operations."

message 20: by Clare (new)

Clare O'Beara | 6283 comments Mod
Good comment, Robert, on the colourful birds you saw as a young person and now the plainer coloured birds are all you see.

When I grew up in a suburban area which still had a riding stable down the road and fields nearby, I saw all kinds of birds like chaffinches in our back garden and redpolls among a flock of house sparrows.
Having moved house to a much more developed area with smaller gardens and more traffic, but near a shore, I see mainly corvids and seagulls. The small birds come to my garden because I plant shrubs for them, particularly during winter.

Even over the two decades I have lived here I have watched the magpie and hooded crow populations increase. These are the bullies of the locality.

Planning permission has just been re-granted against an appeal by the public which was successful, to build hundreds of apartments in the middle of a public park, thus destroying the land that the shore birds like curlews and geese need to feed on during winter.
The book above, The Narrow Edge, makes it clear that shore birds are losing land everywhere.

message 21: by Jimmy (last edited Sep 02, 2020 04:20PM) (new)

Jimmy | 1589 comments Mod
Chapter 4: At an Ancient Orgy [June 21, 1957]

It is the first day of summer, longest day of the year, longest tide of the season. A large female horseshoe crab enacts a ritual that has lasted over 300 million years. A smaller male crab crawls toward her and does a brief circling dance before clasping her shell with modified mating claws.

As they go toward shore, they navigate other male suitors. They clamber over each other to clasp on to her carapace. By the time she reaches shore, two more males are holding on.

Thousands of crabs are on the beach. Each female is surrounded by 30 or 40 males. They are all climbing over each other. The female digs in the sand and deposits several thousand eggs. Other males compete to have their sperm fertilize the eggs. The water is filled with eggs, sperm, and perhaps pheromones.

It is over in 30 minutes. Thousands of crabs crawl back to the ocean. Those that don't make it back will die in the heat of the morning sun.

The next day Sargent goes back with a doctor studying the crabs. In six inches of sand they find 3,000 green eggs the size of a pinhead.

The crabs cannot see in the daytime. It was believed the pheromones attracted them. Eventually, scientists realized the crabs could not be giving off pheromones. Their eyes are made to see ultraviolet light during the full moon. Mystery apparently solved.

message 22: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy | 1589 comments Mod
Part II: Commercialization. Chapter 5: The Conversation. [Woods Hole, Cape Cod, 1962]

Dr. Frederik Bang injected some bacteria into a horseshoe crab and it died. It had no immune system, but it seemed to be mounting a defense.

He finally got someone to show an interest in his experiments.

When they injected a crab with vibrio bacteria, the blood turned a bright cobalt blue. Too much bacteria will kill the crab. But with a small amount, it fights the infection and survives. Its primitive cells swarm to the area, coagulate, and immobilize the bacteria. They act like platelets in human blood.

Dr. Bang collaborated with Dr. Jack Levin. It proved to be one of the most fruitful in the history of applied science. They created a new way to test for bacteria. First they stabilized the amoebocyte cells and made lysate which could be used as a test for bacterial endotoxin.

They should have hired a good lawyer and applied for a patent. Instead they published their paper. They would lose millions of dollars in licensing fees.

message 23: by Jimmy (last edited Sep 05, 2020 07:16PM) (new)

Jimmy | 1589 comments Mod
Chapter 6: Bleeding the Crab [1969-1974]

Gram-negative bacteria are ubiquitous and lethal. They live in shallow waters with horseshoe crabs, and thrive in the human intestine where they usually do little harm. When they enter the human blood system, it's a problem. Trauma breaks the membranes between the gut and blood system. The bacteria get into the blood vessels and multiply. They release endotoxins that cause a raging fever. The person goes into septic shock and can die in 24 hours.

Researchers fold a crab along a hinge connecting the thoracic and abdominal segments. They insert a large needle into the crab's heart. A bluish-gray blood flows into a flask. Air turns it cobalt blue. Lysate was selling for $15,000 a quart.

message 24: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy | 1589 comments Mod
Chapter 7: Crabs and Ponies [Chincoteague Island, June 22, 1972]

Maintaining rabbits was costly, so it was money saving to switch to horseshoe crabs.

Today the lysate industry would have been in an ultramodern stainless steel lab. In 1972 the lysate industry was born in a dirty garage in Woods Hole, Cape Cod, and a storm-ravaged lab on Chincoteague Island.

message 25: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy | 1589 comments Mod
Chapter 8: "Flugate" [1976]

This chapter reminded me so much of the Trump Administration.

A young recruit at Fort Dix dies of a virus "known to be found in pigs from Asia." People wonder if it is the same as "the Spanish flu" of 1918, which killed "up to 40 million people worldwide."

Sargent claims "Flus tend to start in Asia, then spread quickly around the world. They arise when farmers pick up the viruses from their poultry."

Scientists must then figure out "the exact mix of H and N proteins so that pharmaceutical companies can start producing vaccines for the new strain."

"Occasionally, however, something happens that is far more insidious. Instead of being passed from birds to humans, the flu virus ends up in pigs. . . . to create a far more serious dangerous illness." The Center for Disease Control "started to call the new strain by a more ominous name, the swine flu."

But 1976 was an election year for Gerald Ford. What better way to show what he could do than to "vaccinate every man, woman, and child" against the swine flu.

"The federal government urged pharmaceutical firms to start churning out massive quantities of vaccine." It took about 200,000 fertilized eggs to produce about 250 gallons of vaccine. Ford even convinced Congress to accept any liability.

"Then something went wrong. Ten days after the program's inception, people started to get sick from the shots. They developed fever, paralysis, and neurological disorders. Clearly, some vaccines had become contaminated by pyrogens. . . . Fifty-two people had died, six hundred had been impaired, and the government faced $1.7 billion dollars in lawsuits."

And "nothing became of the pandemic. . . . Not a single case of swine flu was ever reported outside of Fort Dix."

What does this have to do with horseshoe crabs? It was right after this that they found out that "the horseshoe crab test was faster, cheaper, easier to use, and several times more sensitive than the rabbit test." Rabbit colonies were dismantled and the crabs became valuable.

message 26: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy | 1589 comments Mod
Chapter 9: Confessions of a Horseshoe Crab Farmer" [Cape Cod, 1982]

In this chapter, Sargent looks into the mortality rate of crabs that are bled and returned to the wild. The figure is fairly low. As always, such things must be regulated to prevent destruction from greed.

message 27: by Robert (new)

Robert Zwilling | 2057 comments At 300 million years, the hope is that they are tough enough to survive the people pandemic.

message 28: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy | 1589 comments Mod
Nothing can survive that.

message 29: by Jimmy (last edited Sep 19, 2020 04:53PM) (new)

Jimmy | 1589 comments Mod
Part III: Environmental Conflicts
Chapter 11: Fishing for Bait: The Conch and Eel Fisheries

[Delaware Bay, 1990 to 2000]

Fisherman could pluck mating crabs off the beach and stack them like cordwood. There would be hundreds of thousands of rotting corpses. The stench caused neighbors to complain. So it was smell rather than science that caused regulations to be put in place and enforced. Also, the economic value of horseshoe crabs helped to cause protections to be put in place. Lessons learned on how to save the environment. People are hard wired to care about the moment, food on the table, money coming in, and not too much about hard shelled crustaceans.

message 30: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy | 1589 comments Mod
Chapter 12: A Day at the Beach: Red Knots and Horseshoe Crabs [Reed's Beach, New Jersey, May 29, 1985]

Red knots spend the summer above the Arctic Circle and the winter on Tierra del Fuego. In March they land in Brazil to feed on snails. They double their weight in a month and fly over the Atlantic to Dover Bay. They are now thin and emaciated. Their migration is timed perfectly to coincide with the phases of the moon and the breeding of horseshoe crabs.

They will spend two weeks on the beaches. Each bird eats 135,000 eggs. All together they gorge on 248 tons of fat and protein. The eggs are critical to the survival of the red knots.

message 31: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy | 1589 comments Mod
Chapter 13: The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission [Washington, D.C., 1996 to 1999]

This chapter discusses the battle between environmentalists and recreational fishermen. I keep repeating this to everyone I know. Regulations are necessary. The drop off in horseshoe crabs was dramatic. Something needed to be done. In the long run, laws and preservation benefit everyone.

We need to take the word "conservative" back from the so-called "conservative" movement because there is nothing conservative about it. It is a destructive disaster.

message 33: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy | 1589 comments Mod
Here is info on the Chinese horseshoe crab:

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