Cars, condos, crabbers – oh my!

Everyone
knows what follows the first heavy summer shower – crabs.

White
land crabs, Cardisoma guanhumi, fill the childhood memories of almost every
older Caymanian. But what younger generations hear most is: “They were bigger
in my day.”

“My
dad looked at it and said, ‘That crab is small compared to the ones in my days
as a young boy,’” said Allan Ebanks, recalling the biggest crab he caught as a
child. “He would say, ‘Their big claws would be so big they couldn’t hold it up
for long. They would just drag it.’”

Although
there is no concrete data on the population size of white land crabs in the
Cayman Islands, years of habitat loss and deaths due to cars have taken their
toll on this species.

“At
the moment there is simply no existing legislation that we could utilise to
secure protection for land crabs,” said Gina Ebanks-Petrie, director of the Department
of Environment, “and this is true of many endemic and indigenous species of
animals and for all plants.”

Should
the National Conservation Law be passed, however, the white land crab would be
afforded certain protections that could return the population to sustainable
levels.

“The
National Conservation Law would, for the first time, provide a local legal
framework for the protection of species such as the land crabs,” she said.

Habitat Loss

White
land crabs are burrowing crabs that make their homes in areas where their holes
can intersect with the water table and enable them to sustain at least one
litre of water at the bottom of their burrow.

Although
these large crabs prefer a herbivorous diet, they are opportunistic omnivores
and occasionally feed on insects, carrion and even other crabs. Their food of
choice, however, is Red or White Mangrove and Buttonwood leaves.

The
depletion of mangrove wetlands and viable burrowing grounds due to increased
development is therefore another factor affecting the survival rates of these
crabs.

Migration and Breeding

Most
people do not see white land crabs other than during the month following the
first torrential summer rain. This is because the reproductive cycle of these
crabs is heavily reliant on, and sensitive to, weather patterns and lunar
phases.

It
can take four years for a female white land crab to reach sexual maturity and,
once she does, she will have to make the dangerous migration down to the shore
to release her eggs into the salt water.

Along
the way, these crabs must face two of the biggest threats to their survival:
cars and hungry locals.

According
to the draft action plan for the land crab in the Biodiversity Action Plan for
Cayman, which was published by the Department of Environment last year,
“bisection of migration by roads is likely the most significant cause of
decline in this species.”

The
plan also stated that the impact of locals harvesting crabs for food is also
presumed to be negatively impacting the species: “a culturally important local
food source within the Cayman Islands, Cardisoma is probably subject to
significant exploitation.”

Conservation

“At
current, the land crabs are listed on Part II of the schedule for protection,
which means they are subject to a Species Conservation Plan,” explained Timothy
Austin, deputy director of research and assessment at the DoE.

If
the National Conservation Bill is passed, white land crabs would be subject to
research regarding their habitat and migration routes, possible bans on the
capture of any egg-carrying females, maximum harvest limits and minimum carapace
(body) size limits. The plan even calls for research into the possibility of “under
road conduits and animal corridors at key crossing sites along migratory
routes”.

In
addition to the white land crab, two smaller species of black land crabs also
inhabit Cayman: Gecarcinus lateralis and Gecarcinus ruricola. The latter black
land crab houses an endemic and endangered fruit fly, Drosophila endobranchia,
in their eyes.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Time long overdue!
    How about building a crab farm that way crab meat is avaiable year round? The benefits of doing such a project would have possitive impact on Cayman. Just imagine, no more risking your life on the road at night trying to catch a meal, when the crab reach maturity they can be boiled, picked, and put into vaccum sealed bags like the Rum cakes and I’ll bet that in no time at all, crab meat will be the number one export.
    Construction of a farm shouldn’t cost much and breeding of the spieces would ensure Cayman Culture continues for generations to come. Also, the farm can release crabs back into the wild once they have reach a certain size so that the locals who still want to go crabbing, can.

  2. I heartily agree; a crab farm is long overdue. It doesn’t take someone w/a PHD to see these creatures are heading for extinction. Our natural resources are so limited already & crabs were here long before human habitation. What a great opportunity to start a new business & boost the economy. Why doesn’t the DoE or DoA give a seminar for people interested in doing something like this to make sure the farms are properly conducted?

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