Groups oppose SC Attorney General’s attempt to open wildlife refuge to horseshoe crab harvesting

"We are joining this lawsuit to speak for the red knots and other imperiled species that have finally gotten long-overdue protections,” said Ben Prater, Southeast Regional Director for Defenders of Wildlife.

Charleston, S.C.

The Southern Environmental Law Center has filed a motion to intervene and a motion to dismiss on behalf of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League and Defenders of Wildlife in the State of South Carolina’s challenge to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s authority to manage horseshoe crab harvesting and protect threatened wildlife in the Cape Romain Wildlife Refuge.

In 2020, SELC filed litigation on behalf of Defenders of Wildlife to stop unlawful horseshoe crab harvesting in Cape Romain. As a result of that lawsuit, the Fish and Wildlife Service ultimately issued a landmark decision that the practice of harvesting horseshoe crabs during spawning season is incompatible with the purposes of the refuge and the mission of the National Wildlife Refuge System.  

Among other reasons, the Service took this action to protect Endangered Species Act-listed red knots that must feed on horseshoe crab eggs during their arduous migration from Patagonia to the Arctic. Many red knots stop just on South Carolina beaches to gorge themselves on horseshoe crab eggs in order to survive and reproduce in the Arctic. The Service also found this action necessary to protect other ESA-listed species like the piping plover and loggerhead sea turtle as well as the many species of shorebirds that rely on the refuge for foraging and nesting.

In 2023, Defenders of Wildlife and the Coastal Conservation League settled other litigation over the holding and harvest of horseshoe crabs in South Carolina more generally. As part of this settlement, the harvest in Cape Romain is banned until at least 2029. 

Yet the State of South Carolina claims in its case that it has the exclusive right to manage the horseshoe crab harvest and other saltwater fisheries in the refuge, not the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The motion to intervene and motion to dismiss filed refute the State’s claims.

“Cape Romain was specifically established as a wildlife refuge to protect species like red knots,” said Catherine Wannamaker, SELC Senior Attorney. “The Attorney General’s late-breaking attempt to gut our hard-fought protections for Cape Romain and to substitute the state as the manager for federally protected species and lands is especially egregious. Wasting South Carolinians’ taxpayer dollars to undermine science-based wildlife protections in a federal wildlife refuge defies common sense.”

“The Fish and Wildlife Service acted based on both the science and the law in protecting Cape Romain from private, for-profit commercial harvest of the dwindling horseshoe crab population,” said Ben Prater, Southeast Regional Director for Defenders of Wildlife. “It took a lawsuit to force the Service to stop turning a blind eye to the wildlife impacts of years of taking tens of thousands of horseshoe crabs out of the refuge. We are joining this lawsuit to speak for the red knots and other imperiled species that have finally gotten long-overdue protections.”

“The National Wildlife Refuge System was designed to protect and preserve our wildlife resources and harvesting horseshoe crabs within the refuge is directly contrary to that goal,” said Riley Egger, Coastal Conservation League’s Land, Water & Wildlife Program Director. “Cape Romain must continue to be a site of reprieve for horseshoe crabs and red knots.”

Defenders of Wildlife is celebrating 75 years of protecting all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With a nationwide network of nearly 2.2 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit and follow us on Twitter @Defenders.

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