Horseshoe Crab Festival

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A Wildlife Refuge official display the underside of the ecologically important sea creature. (Photos by Michael Givant)

The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is an invaluable environmental resource to both the creatures of the wild and the residents of geographical Long Island. The refuge, at 175-10 Cross Bay Blvd. in Broad Channel, Queens, along with the Audubon Society, recently held its first annual Horseshoe Crab Festival, with a free screening focusing on Pollinators: Butterflies and Moths scheduled for Saturday, June 21. 

At Big Egg Marsh, there are at least 70 people, divided into four groups, each with a leader. Steve, a large man, who tells a good story, stands in shallow water holding a horseshoe crab upside down, casually, as if it were a serving plate with a small spear. That “spear” is the crab’s tail. Its multiple legs are wriggling and several of us take turns holding and photographing it. They have 10 eyes and are quite attuned to the ocean bottom. They walk with the rounded front of their shell first with the tail dragging behind.

These crabs are a keystone species providing great benefit to numerous other species including some loggerhead sea turtles and sharks. Another, we humans, place a market value on their blood for $15,000 a quart. Their bright blue blood contains a compound, Limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL), which is the worldwide standard test for screening bacteria. It saves lives.

Migrating red knots are dependent on horseshoe crabs’ eggs, rich in fat and protein, to double their weight at Delaware Bay for the last leg of their more than 9,000-mile spring migration from Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of Argentina to their Arctic breeding grounds. The knots have found fewer and fewer horseshoe crab eggs due to over-harvesting of the crabs and degradation of the shoreline. Red knots’ numbers have dropped so precipitously that environmental groups have petitioned to have the bird placed on the endangered species list.

Older horseshoe crabs have barnacles and snails hitching a ride.

These creatures come ashore during the full moons in May and June. The high tide this morning will be at 10:30 a.m. and some of it has reached far into to the grass forming a small tributary. Two crabs, one large and one small, are attached to each other and are slowly moving along that temporary waterway. The larger one is the female and the smaller is the male. Both have visible barnacles and snails as older horseshoe crabs lose their ability to shed them. The Park Service rangers believe that she has laid her eggs, he’s fertilized them and both are now waiting for the tide to turn and go back out to sea.

At the beach, the shallow water reveals a large number of horseshoe crabs. Some are dull brown forms in the water, others arise with the shells surfacing first. What appears to be two crabs latched onto each other becomes a trio when a third becomes visible and a fourth is practically buried in muddy sediment. These unmoving “pods” are a group of males attached to one female waiting for her to move so one can mate with her.

Steve has, in “another life,” worked in the pharmaceutical industry and has brought a microscope to examine something horseshoe crab related. I follow some semipalmated sandpipers running in and out of the seaweed on the dark sand and notice that there’s a stranded horseshoe crab on its back, legs kicking and the tail seemingly damaged. Gingerly picking it up, I put the struggling creature in the shallow water. It starts out to sea, but comes back. Then it slowly makes a U-turn leaving a trail in the wet sand. Returning to the water, it heads out to sea.

The afternoon’s speaker, Deborah Cramer, has a new book, The Narrow Edge, a first-hand account of the 19,000-mile round trip migration of red knots and the interdependence between them, horseshoe crabs’ eggs and humans. She says, “There are people from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego who’ve dedicated their lives to giving these birds safe passage and it’s so deeply, deeply moving.” That resonates within me.

She has walked the walk, having been to Tierra del Fuego and the Arctic. Her talk puts into perspective the staggeringly long trip the red knots have of 19,000-miles round-trip or almost pole to pole. Part of it are pictures, one of which is a captivating black and white shot of an enormous swirling mass of red knots. The land surface of Tierra del Fuego, with the Straits of Magellan off to the side, looks as if no living being has set foot there except a photographer. That all living things are globally interconnected is beginning to dawn on me. I‘ve thought of nature as a cathedral when walking in the woods. However, the idea of a global cathedral of biodiversity is now slowly crystallizing in my mind.

Afterward, I feel as if I’ve been in a cathedral; the visitor’s center lecture room. Cramer’s words, the talk, everything I’ve seen and heard has left me in a pleasant emotional daze. I think about some of the people I’ve met today and realize that this is a community to which I want to belong and I do. There’s been so much more than horseshoe crabs at this festival.

The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge’s free walk, Pollinators: Butterflies and Moths, takes place on Saturday, June 21, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. For more information. call 718-318-4340.

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