Horseshoe Crabs

What millions of years have wrought is now at the bottom of the food chain.

Earth turns its face to outer space and a tide of darkness signals the start of activities to night’s creatures.

My dog, Kenzie, and I walk along the shore in fine moonlight. Several invisible whip-poor-wills have again added their rhythmic triad to the night chorus. Their calls ring from the dark woods. A few remain to be heard here in the relative isolation of Lazy Point, but they’re vanishing in many places, possibly because ground-nesting makes them vulnerable to loose cats. The ghostly birds chant incessantly, making their haunting call, so welcome at first, seem ultimately more forlorn than any raven of Poe. It’s as though they’re trying to etch themselves into memory before they’re gone.

But tonight it’s horseshoe crabs I seek. The night is stock-still. It remains too cool for mosquitoes, and I’m enjoying the quiet water, the mild air, the night chorus. When I reach the bay, the tide is within an hour or so of high. It’s so calm it touches the shore like pond water. I flick on my flashlight. The water is clear. I sweep the beam, startling a few small fish, illuminating a few snails.

I walk and stalk my way along the shore. And in just a few steps I find the first consorting horseshoe crabs. A large female, with a smooth, pea-green shell about two feet long, is traveling along the bottom with a male holding onto her and two smaller males following.

The horseshoe crabs’ main breeding periods straddle the full moons of May and June. It’s two days to full. They’ve waited a year, and waited for high tide. Now their hour arrives. Roused from depth by moonlight and some kind of memory, they begin working shoreward in the dark water. In the shallows they assemble for a rite ancient beyond human imagining.

Their rounded shield of shell looks a little like a horse’s hoof; a few older fishermen still call them “horsefoots.” To me their shell recalls a helmet. That helmeted body trails a spike-like tail that looks like weaponry, but they use it solely to right themselves if they get overturned. Unusually strange yet strangely familiar, these “crabs” are actually closer related to spiders. But with a crab-like shell shielding crab-like legs, “crab” is the only word that works. Most jointed-legged invertebrates—arthropods—are either insects, arachnids (spider-types) or crustaceans like true crabs. Yet within the arthropods, horseshoe crabs are in a class by themselves, called “merostomata,” meaning their mouth is at the center of their legs.

Their looks are debatable, but one can hardly argue with their track record of success. With no other defenses than this shell, they’ve existed 450 million years. In other words, their same basic body plan has worked for nearly half a billion years. None of us can imagine what that kind of time even means. When horseshoe crabs were new under the sea, fish did not yet have jaws, corals were just evolving, and flowering plants, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals did not exist. Hundreds of millions of years later, dinosaurs would arise, flourish and vanish. Right around closing time we’ve strolled in, and they’re still here.

Yet nowadays, they’re defenseless toward their new major predator: guess who.

American horseshoe crab eggs can reportedly cause poisoning and death. That would seem sufficient to save them. But a few years ago enterprising fishermen discovered that cracked-up egg-bearing females prove attractive in luring eels and whelks to traps.

Dark shapes appear farther out in slightly deeper water, like smudges moving shoreward or an approaching armada of landing craft. Each couple of steps reveals more horseshoe crabs along the shore, and more in deeper water, males scooting along in deft pursuit of brides, and females already burdened with love. These animals are not just ancient, they’re old. They’ve molted their shells about 17 times before reaching adult size at around 9 years of age (unmolested, they can live to about 20 years). Males ultimately emerge into adulthood with a distinguishing pair of “boxing glove” claws on their front legs, designed specifically for clinging to the shell of a female. The male rides a likely mate, and when she digs a nest and lays a clutch of eggs, the male fertilizes them with a cloud of sperm.

Right along the waterline, crabs are working at various stages of their task, some females just bulldozing their way into the sand, others sunk almost to the roof of their shells, with males holding fast to their prizes, fertilizing eggs as she lays them.

Finding this mass arrival in the pull of the moon feels like stumbling upon a major secret. I reach for my cell phone and call my partner, who I know would appreciate seeing all this.

In the act of coming shoreward to dig nests, the horseshoe crabs remind me a little bit of sea turtles, for which I hold deep affection. Anything that comes repeatedly, for long enough, can feel deeply reassuring.

More than reassuring—sacred. Nothing seems more fundamental than the act of creating new generations of living beings—or more vulnerable. And that puts my heart on alert.

Something in the pit of my stomach tells me that, after 450 million years, the only way to go from this feeling, is down.

Patricia arrives.

The scene and its magic immediately enchant her.

In a few hours the ebb will leave the horseshoe crab eggs above high-tide line. They’ll be somewhat vulnerable to birds but out of reach of the carpeting snails that graze the bay floor and can more thoroughly relieve a nest of its contents than any birds. The next moon-aligned tides will rise high enough to fetch tiny hatchlings, who’ll start their perilous bid for long life. Of course, only a small fraction will succeed. And if all goes as it’s gone for the last few hundred million years, that should be enough.

But “enough” might be a concept better understood by horseshoe crabs than by humans.

The moonlight suddenly shrivels as high-beam headlights bounce onto the beach. Patricia and I stare like deer. I have a feeling I know what’s coming.

The pickup stops and a man gets out. I hear him sloshing in the water and soon I hear the thuds and bangs of horseshoe crabs hitting the bed of his truck.

The night, the spell. The magic turns toxic, almost mocking. I begin to hate myself for having so enjoyed the scene. So naive of me.

He moves his truck along, stops, gets back into the water, and we hear crabs hitting metal by the dozens.

I’ve known that baymen use horseshoe crabs for bait. But knowing is not the same as seeing an ancient rite turned into flying junk wholesale. My heart starts pounding with both rage and fear. In the inevitable confrontation I know is coming in the next minute, I’m afraid things may get out of hand.

He hasn’t seen us yet.

Patricia charges into the water—with her cell phone in her pocket, I’m pretty sure—and now she, too, is jerking crabs from their nests. But instead of throwing them ashore she is flinging them as far out as she can, beyond reach of a man in boots.

Hey! Stop.”

Patricia, waist deep in chilly water and soaked to the neck, is likewise wound to a furious black anger. The more he yells at her to cut it out, the faster and more determinedly she works. Every crab is to him a living, to her a life. There is no chance of a meeting of the minds here. He speeds his truck to where I’m standing, hops out and gets in my face.

He wants me to get her to stop. One might as well try to stop the tide from rising. He’s clean-cut, athletically built, wearing hip boots and a light long-sleeve shirt. His brown hair makes a straight sweep across his forehead. He’s angry, but his eyes suggest that he feels some combination of exasperation and worry; it’s the look of someone already feeling besieged. I see at least the opportunity to remain calm and prevent the situation from coming to blows.

He tells me that what he’s doing is legal. I say I know it is. What Patricia is doing is legal, too. To oversimplify: she wants to take the horseshoe crabs from him; he wants to take them from her.

At stake for him is his self-identity, his family history. But his problems here go far, far beyond Patricia and me. It’s a traditional way of life already eroded by overfishing, undermined by overreaching, overdevelopment and a flood of linen-wearing outsiders who come to socialize while sipping wine in the sunset but don’t really understand what this region is about.

I empathize. Our worries largely overlap. The declines that threaten his interests also threaten mine. But in this moment, we have a significant difference of opinions.

His job with the town indicates that you really can’t be young and earn a full-time living as a bayman anymore. Not with the combined pressures of depletion, shrinking fishing options, out-of-sight real-estate prices and soaring property taxes. I say we can’t do what our great-grandfathers were doing. He’s pointing to his license again. I know, it’s legal, I say again. But times change. What others did in the past limits our options now, because a lot of it was overdone. I just think he shouldn’t be taking crabs at this rate—not filling trucks while they’re laying eggs.

Nearly 400 people hold licenses to take horseshoe crabs from waters of this state. In the old days, limits on catching horseshoes seemed unnecessary. But market demand for whelk and eels increased rapidly in the 1990s, and so did demand for crabs as trap-bait for them.

Another pair of headlights turns onto the beach, death warrant for another five hundred horseshoe crabs if they can find them. There are two guys in that truck. This changes the dynamic. Patricia is down the shore, still grimly flinging crabs to deeper water. The guy I’m talking to drives over to consult with his buddies. I’m expecting a unified confrontation but instead they decide to leave.

In the time it might take them to go have a beer, we’re long gone. There is no one to call, because this is legal and the “limit” is so stratospheric there’s no way they can exceed it by laying a hand on each and every crab they see.

In the morning the beach is laced and churned with tire tracks. They came back, of course. Others came, too. There is something in man that hates natural abundance, and something that clings to excess.

But if one takes all, one is left with nothing. This year, I again stalked those moonlight shallows. I found: not one single horseshoe crab.

Excerpted from, The View From Lazy Point: A Natural Year in an Unnatural World by Carl Safina, Henry Holt publishers, 2012. Carl Safina is author of 6 books and more than 100 scientific and popular publications. Founding president of Blue Ocean Institute, Safina is also a professor at Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York, where he co-chairs the new Center for Communicating Science. Safina has received honors that range from a MacArthur “genius” grant to a James Beard medal. Audubon magazine named him among “100 Notable Conservationists of the 20th Century.” His television series, Saving the Ocean with Carl Safina premiered last fall on PBS.