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Give horseshoe crabs a break -- before they're gone

A baby horseshoe crab, showing its underside, floats

A baby horseshoe crab, showing its underside, floats lazily in a tank at the New York State Department of Environmental Convservation as Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine speaks with other officials seeking a ban on the harvesting of horseshoe crabs within 500 feet of all Town of Brookhaven parks in Mt. Sinai Tuesday, May 19, 2015. Credit: David L. Pokress

Behold the lowly horseshoe crab. That, in essence, is what the Brookhaven Town Board wants state environmental officials to do. And that's a good thing.

The board has asked the state to ban harvesting the crabs at town beaches and in Setauket Harbor, to address concerns about overfishing. Given insufficient information about their habitat and whether the population is declining or stable, it's a reasonable request. In environmental matters, erring on the side of caution is almost always a good idea.

Beyond the wisdom of preserving species whenever we can, horseshoe crabs are important symbolically and in reality. They are truly prehistoric, dating 445 million years. In modern ecology, their eggs are food for many migratory bird species that fly north in the spring.

Most important, their blue blood is a lifesaver. Literally. It contains a chemical that can detect even minute traces of bacteria. So the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires that horseshoe crab blood be used in safety tests of intravenous drugs and medical equipment such as needles and pacemakers. After they're bled, most are returned to the ocean. In a commercial harvest, crabs are ground up for use as bait for eel and conch.

There are four species of horseshoe crabs. Three of them, in Southeast Asia, are threatened by habitat destruction and their recent emergence as an exotic food for humans. And our species has been overfished before, along the Atlantic Coast. Let's make sure it doesn't happen again. Halt the harvest, and collect the data from around Long Island. Then make a sound decision on how to manage and protect these ancient creatures.