CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – A lawsuit has been filed against the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and pharmaceutical company, Charles River Laboratories, over so-called horseshoe crab pens.

The lawsuit, filed by the Southern Environmental Law Center representing Defenders of Wildlife and the Coastal Conservation League, claims the two entities are violating the Endangered Species Act by allowing harvesters to keep horseshoe crabs captive in manmade ponds.

The groups say it’s a practice only permitted in South Carolina. They said confining crabs to the ponds during breeding season deprives the red knots, a threatened migratory shorebird, of its primary food source.

The Southern Environmental Law Center said it issued a federally required 60-day notice letter to SCDNR and Charles River Laboratories calling for an end to the practice. The lawsuit was filed after that timeframe expired.

According to the center, SCDNR issues permits for the ponds while agents with Charles River Laboratories build and maintain the ponds.

“We asked the state’s wildlife regulators to do the right thing and protect the state’s wildlife, namely the red knots, and they did not,” said Lindsay Dubin, an attorney with Defenders of Wildlife. “Now we have no choice but to go to court to stop the state from authorizing this harmful practice and to stop Charles River from further threatening these iconic birds.”

Records, provided by SCDNR, show Charles River Laboratories will take nearly 150,000 horseshoe crabs from South Carolina beaches each spring and place them into the overcrowded ponds.

“Red knots time their 9,000-mile migrations to coincide with the crabs’ short spawning season. Without an abundance of nutrient-rich crab eggs, red knots will not survive their migration,” the groups said.

“These amazing birds have evolved to depend on the mid-Atlantic’s horseshoe crabs and, like so much in nature, the balance is delicate,” said Emily Cedzo of the Coastal Conservation League. “Charles River is upsetting that balance, and it is unconscionable that the state’s wildlife protectors don’t appear concerned. But we are, and we’re taking them to court to stop it.”

The lawsuit says there are no restrictions on the number of crabs that Charles River can place in the ponds or for how long they are housed there.

Advocates say thousands of crabs often die in the process.

“South Carolina is aiding Charles River – a roughly $20 billion company — by keeping secret nearly everything about these horseshoe crab ponds,” said Catherine Wannamaker, a senior SELC attorney. “What we have managed to glean from public records isn’t reassuring. State regulators don’t inspect the ponds and don’t know how many crabs are packed into them. That leaves thousands of crabs to die in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions.”

It’s believed the lab drains the blue blood from the crabs to be used to test the sterility of medical equipment. Conservationists say the Charles River relies on the blood despite the availability of a synthetic alternative that is equally effective for biomedical use.

The Southern Environmental Law Center and Defenders of Wildlife successfully sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this year for allowing Charles River’s agents to harvest horseshoe crabs at Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge without a federal permit.

News 2 has reached out to SCDNR and Charles River for comment. We are waiting to hear back from SCDNR.

Charles River released the following statement:

“This lawsuit is part of an ongoing campaign to put the health and safety of patients, as well as the security of the global biopharmaceutical supply chain, at risk during a global pandemic in the name of environmental extremism. The truth is that no company has done more than Charles River to protect and preserve a healthy and growing horseshoe crab population in South Carolina’s waterways. We championed South Carolina legislation to ban horseshoe crab harvesting for use as bait, and our process is designed to preserve and protect horseshoe crabs. A 2019 Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) Stock Assessment rated horseshoe crab populations along the Southeast coastline “good”—the highest rating of any region.  The ASMFC also analyzed decades of data to conclude that “the biomedical community has had a positive impact on [horseshoe crab] populations through 45 years of consistent conservation practices.”  Our efforts to conserve horseshoe crabs are working.

Rushing to push an unproven synthetic alternative to LAL is reckless. LAL, derived from horseshoe crab blood, is the gold standard. It is used in an FDA-approved endotoxin test that ensures all injectable drugs and implantable medical devices, including all approved COVID-19 vaccines, are free from harmful bacteria. We are not opposed to a safe alternative to LAL.  We have robust research underway to transition to a synthetic alternative if and when it’s proven as a 100% safe equivalent.  

We will continue to work with federal, state and local wildlife and resource management agencies to balance humanity’s need for this valuable resource with the interest in protecting the crabs that provide it.”