It’s that time of the year again. The first heavy rains of the season have brought land crabs out of their holes and onto Cayman’s gardens and roads.
It’s also that time of year when people gather on the roadsides catching the crabs, prompting the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service to warn crabbers to be careful when chasing after their supper.
“Although we appreciate people keeping up with their culture, we have a duty to notify the public that whilst they are crabbing, they have to ensure that they remain safe,” said Chief Inspector Angelique Howell.
She advised people to remain visible at night by wearing bright clothing and carrying a torch so that they can see and be seen by other road users.
“Don’t park vehicles with their bright headlights in other road users’ faces as this can be dangerous and cause collisions,” she said.
And importantly, “when entering the roadway, do so safely, and do not rush out in front of traffic [while] chasing crabs into the street”.
Chief Inspector Howell also reminded people taking their children on crab hunts to ensure they are properly monitored at all times.
“We have seen tragedy before where residents have been killed or seriously injured during these excursions and we must impress upon residents to be careful when doing this,” she said.
There are three species of land crabs in Cayman, but the largest kind, the white land crab, is the most sought after for the cooking pot.
Because nowhere in Grand Cayman is too far from the sea, crabs can be found just about everywhere on the Island.
While local Caymanians and long-time residents of the Island report that fewer land crabs have been sighted in recent years, there have been no specific studies on the population of land crabs in Cayman.
Tim Austin, deputy director of the Department of Environment, said there is no specific information available about the population status of land crabs.
“It has been flagged for more research. We are completely data-deficient on this. However, it is fair to say that the habitat loss, roads and people are probably the three major impacts on them,” he said.
He said that while the population still seemed quite robust, there was anecdotal evidence of people reporting seeing fewer on them on the roads.
“But, we also get calls from people saying there are lots of land crabs digging in their lawns,” he added.
His department has prepared a national biodiversity action plan, which includes a section on the white land crab. Like almost every other species of animal in Cayman, until the National Conservation Law is introduced, land crabs have no legal protection.
According to the action plan – created as part of preparations for the implementation of the National Conservation Law, which is still be drafted and revised – there are no local or regional conservation initiatives for these crabs. The crabs are not listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora or International Union for Conservation of Nature Redlist, which lists endangered or threatened species.
The reproductive cycle of the white land crab is closely linked to seasonal weather patterns and lunar phases, with migrations prompted by heavy rains. The crabs forage intensely in the first few weeks of the migratory period, gaining weight quickly. This is also when the mating season begins.
Throughout July and August, most females carry external egg masses. These are carried for two weeks prior to hatching and must be released into salt water for the larvae to survive.
The female crabs usually complete their spawning within one to two days and generally spawn within one to two days of a full moon.
How many eggs a female crab produces depends on her size. For example, a 300-gramme female can produce between 300,000 and 700,000 per spawning and she can spawn several times a year.
Land crabs are mostly herbivorous, eating leaves, fruit and grass, but will also eat insects and carrion, including other dead crabs.
The Department of Environment’s action plan lays out steps that could be taken if it turns out the crab population is at risk, such as catch limits, a closed season and the establishment of protected areas.
“We may take a leaf from other jurisdictions where crabs as species have been hammered hard,” said Mr. Austin.
He cited Puerto Rico as a country where measures have been taken to protect blue land crabs. There, the government has a minimum size limit and prohibited harvesting of blue land crabs between July 15 and October 15.
However, Mr. Austin stressed that more research would need to be carried out before any conservation steps would be considered.