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How This Tiny New Jersey Town Is Saving Millions of Lives

I am an outdoor enthusiast with a career in the medical field that gets in the way. I enjoy spending my free time in the outdoors.

Horseshoe crabs mating and laying their eggs in Fortescue, NJ.

Horseshoe crabs mating and laying their eggs in Fortescue, NJ.

The Significance of Fortescue, New Jersey

Scientists say that for more than 400 million years, the American horseshoe crab has made its annual journey from its deepwater home on the edge of the continental shelf to the sandy shores of the Delaware Bay. Here in Fortescue, NJ, residents, nature lovers, and members of the New Jersey chapter of the Nature Conservancy, take the necessary steps to protect the breeding grounds of this unique, life-saving creature.

Fortescue Residents: Protecting the Horseshoe Crab Breeding Grounds

Every year in the months of May and July, the need to reproduce brings these alien-like creatures to the shores of small towns along the coast of the Delaware Bay like Fortescue, NJ. The State of New Jersey currently imposes a moratorium on the possession of live or dead horseshoe crabs. In order to protect their breeding areas, certain areas of Fortescue and other beaches along the coast of the Delaware Bay are closed from May 7 to June 7 as a measure to shelter the crabs and shorebirds from adverse human interference. The folks at Return the Favor offer resources on their website returnthefavornj.org for people interested in becoming involved in the effort to protect this living fossil. The local residents of Fortescue are aware of the timing of the horseshoe crab breeding cycle and are careful to turn stranded crabs upright, as well as return crabs that have been beached high above the waterline back to their ocean home. In an effort to protect the crabs during the mating season, the town of Fortescue partners with the New Jersey Department of Fish and Wildlife to ensure extra conservation officers are available to patrol the beaches and enforce the beach closures and other regulations regarding possession of crabs and inadvertent killing of crabs by fishermen and crabbers.

Saving Lives

These actions by a small town, along with a local group of conservationists, are responsible for protecting this living resource of scientific study, which in turn is a key to life-saving medicines and vaccines used by millions today.

The beach at Fortescue, NJ

The beach at Fortescue, NJ

Fortescue: A Brief History

The town is named after John Fortescue, a local property owner who owned the land now known as Fortescue prior to the American revolution in 1776. In the 1800s, the tiny Bayshore town of Fortescue supported itself with fishing and oystering in the shallow waters of the Delaware Bay. Charter boats and crabbing were popular up until the 1970s, with an estimated 100 personal boats trailered in daily during the peak fishing season. In 1976, a round of federal regulations was imposed that limited fish catches, which in turn greatly reduced the number of visitors to the area. Once branded the "weakfish capital of the world," Fortescue seemed to be making a comeback in the years leading up to the 1990s when the weakfish population in the Delaware Bay suddenly began to decline. This signaled the end of nearly 150 years of fishing and fishing-related tourism. The marinas, souvenir shops, and roadside stands all began to shut their doors as profits dwindled. To add injury to insult, this quaint, quiet little town was struck by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. What remains is beautiful scenery and beaches, good people, and the hope of improved fishing conditions.

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Scientists extract the blood of horseshoe crabs to perform important studies in vaccine and medical products

Scientists extract the blood of horseshoe crabs to perform important studies in vaccine and medical products

The Medical Importance of the American Horseshoe Crab

The blue-blooded horseshoe crab, a distant relative of today's spiders and scorpions, is a sought-after commodity by medical professionals and the biomedical industry - specifically, their blood. This life-saving elixir can sell for thousands of dollars per liter on the scientific market. The unique characteristics, time-consuming recovery, and scarcity of the blood of horseshoe crabs are responsible for the high market price. A rare protein found only in the blood of these "crabs" is used by scientists to make Limulus Amebocyte Lysate, a substance that produces a clearly visible reaction to contaminants when in contact with potentially harmful toxins. According to a report from theneweconomy.com, without this substance, anyone receiving an injection, medical implant or intravenous drip could be at risk of a potentially lethal bacterial infection.

COVID-19 and the Life-Saving Properties of Horseshoe Crab Blood

Viruses and bacteria are among the most deadly organisms on Earth. This hit everyone close to home in 2020, when COVID-19 was discovered in China and quickly spread throughout the world as one of the largest pandemics in history. The copper-infused blue blood of the lowly horseshoe crab was instrumental in the creation of a vaccine that is considered to have saved millions of lives. Despite the scientific importance of the horseshoe crab and the protective measures currently being taken, harvesting and overfishing have drastically reduced their population. This may sound disheartening, but hope is on the horizon. According to a Journal of Medicine scholarly article authored by Tim Maloney, Ryan Phelan, and Naira Simmons, a synthetic alternative is available and can potentially result in a 90% reduction in the use of horseshoe crab blood in the medical industry. This is great news for the American horseshoe crab, whose conservation status has been recently upgraded to a threatened species. See citation below.

Sources: retrunthefavor.org, downebythebay.org

Citation: Maloney T, Phelan R, Simmons N (2018) Saving the horseshoe crab: A synthetic alternative to horseshoe crab blood for endotoxin detection. PLoS Biol 16(10): e2006607. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.2006607

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Charles Kikas

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