Author Archives: Mass Audubon

Horseshoe Crabs Need Our Help

News: Overexploitation of Horseshoe Crabs Continues Despite Overwhelming Support for their Protection 

For more than 400 million years, horseshoe crabs have survived in virtually unchanged form. Today, horseshoe crab eggs fuel epic annual migrations of the Red Knot and other coastal birds, but the crabs and other species that depend on them are in trouble.  

Tragically, decades of overexploitation have depleted these ancient creatures to a fraction of their historic populations. Recently, the state body tasked with managing this species in Massachusetts, the Marine Fisheries Advisory Commission (MFAC), voted down key protections aimed at reversing their decline. Without further protections, horseshoe crabs will continue to be harvested while spawning and laying eggs and will stand little chance of rebounding to healthy population levels. 

We’re calling on the MFAC to reverse this unacceptable decision—we must ramp up protections for the oldest species in Massachusetts. 

horseshoe crab on beach

A Failure to Protect Horseshoe Crabs 

Mass Audubon scientists and advocates have called for stronger horseshoe crab protections for years. Fortunately, the Massachusetts Department of Marine Fisheries (DMF) recently proposed a harvesting ban from January 1 through May 3, which would have protected horseshoe crabs during spawning. We rallied wildlife lovers to submit public comments in support of these protections and you delivered! The DMF received more than 1,350 comments, over 80 percent of which came from Mass Audubon supporters. 

Tragically, the MFAC—an appointed board dominated by the fishing industry—chose to ignore unanimous public support and recommendations by DMF scientists. They voted against restricting horseshoe crab harvesting during spawning season. Instead, they approved weaker regulations, such as lowering annual crab harvest quotas. But these protections fall far short of those needed to return horseshoe crab populations to healthy levels. 

In support of their decision, the MFAC cited our data that showed slight increases in horseshoe crab numbers during the last few years. However, these increases were primarily in places where bait harvest was banned, and crab numbers remain radically below their historic levels.  We need to see long-term, strong growth to put horseshoe crab populations on track towards recovery.  

Threats to Horseshoe Crabs in Massachusetts 

Scientists at Mass Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary have conducted annual surveys of horseshoe crabs for more than two decades. In recent years, they have found chronically depleted populations with highly skewed male-female ratios. Two irresponsible harvesting practices drive this frightening trend.  

First, commercial fishermen harvest more than 100,000 crabs each year to use as bait for whelk—a species that is already overfished in Massachusetts. Harvesting one depleted species to use as bait for another is the height of irresponsible overfishing. Mass Audubon calls for an end to this practice. 

Biomedical industry practices add to the pressure from commercial bait fishing. By bleeding horseshoe crabs for a compound found in their blood to test drug purity, biomedical companies make millions by testing pharmaceutical products for bacteria. The industry claims this practice is humane, but studies have shown that up to 30% of crabs die after being bled.  

Developing effective synthetic alternatives to the compound extracted from horseshoe crabs will be part of the solution to the problems created by biomedical harvests. In the meantime, however, the bleeding industry must be carefully regulated. 

Recognizing the threats to horseshoe crabs, other states like Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and South Carolina have committed to strict regulations on harvesting female crabs or harvesting at all during the spawning season. These strong protections elsewhere on the Atlantic Coast are driving more harvesters to Massachusetts, making it even more crucial that we do our part in protecting this ancient species. 

How You Can Help Protect Horseshoe Crabs 

Mass Audubon is committed to challenging the MFAC’s decision and continuing to push for stronger protections for horseshoe crabs. Stay tuned for updates on how you can help protect horseshoe crabs, then get ready to share far and wide—we’ll need all hands on deck! 

A New Tree Alliance in Boston 

There’s an old proverb that says great cities are filled with people who plant trees under whose shade they will never sit. On May 12, Mass Audubon and the City of Boston kicked off a program aimed at bringing that proverb to life. 

Mayor Wu and Mass Audubon Boston Regional Director Erin Kelly next to new microforest (Photo: City of Boston-Mayor’s Office/Isabel Leon)

Mayor Michelle Wu joined Mass Audubon President David O’Neill and other guests at our Boston Nature Center & Wildlife Sanctuary in Mattapan to help plant a new microforest. Roughly 100 onlookers were serenaded at the event by the joyous shouts and giggles of children from Boston Nature Center’s Pathways to Nature Preschool who were playing in the wildlife sanctuary’s nearby woods.

The unusually warm 84-degree-day perfectly underscored the urgent need for more trees that help people breathe better, serve as a vital connection to the outdoors, and mitigate heat islands in the face of worsening climate change. 

Forming the Alliance 

Wu also announced that she has tapped Mass Audubon to bring together a group of nonprofits to plant hundreds of trees on privately owned land in Boston neighborhoods. This new Tree Alliance will bolster the city’s tree canopy and give Boston residents more access to the physical and emotional benefits trees provide. 

The Alliance follows the recommendations of Boston’s first Urban Forest Plan (UFP), an assessment of Boston’s urban forest, with suggestions to improve the way trees are cared for and ensure the urban forest is available to the entire community.  While Mass Audubon will convene the alliance of nonprofits undertaking this task, Mass Audubon President David O’Neill stressed the on-the-ground change will come from folks in the communities who most heavily bear the brunt of a lack of trees. 

Planting the Microforest 

Mayor Wu, Erica Holm, David O'Neill and others planting a tree

After Mayor Wu read her remarks in both English and Spanish, she and some of the preschoolers got down in the soil with Mass Audubon’s Urban Ecologist Erica Holm to help plant one of the new microforest’s trees.  

With 96 trees and more than 200 shrubs and perennial plants of 33 species, the new microforest transformed an unused gravel roadway into a high-density planting inspired by the Miyawaki method. This will jump-start forest succession and re-establish a healthy pocket forest that mitigates urban heat island effects, supports biodiversity, and buffers against flooding and erosion. 

Mass Audubon also gave five trees to city residents to plant on their own land. 

Next Steps

Members of nonprofit organizations with interest in becoming a member of the Tree Alliance and private landowners in Boston who would like to inquire about potential tree plantings can email [email protected].

A kick-off meeting is anticipated for late summer/early fall. And, we are currently hiring an Alliance Coordinator, so please spread the word!