Land crabs feel the pinch from development

Habitat loss poses threat to population across Grand Cayman

For generations, Ronnie Ebanks’ family has foraged for land crabs through the thick undergroves and roadside shrubs of North Side’s wetlands.

“I learned how to catch them from my father, and now I’ve taught my son,” said Ebanks.

The bright white, red, yellow and even rainbow colours that adorn the shells of the crabs make them visible from a great distance away but, nonetheless, Ebanks said, “it’s becoming harder and harder to find them”.

Ronnie Ebanks and his son Calvert Ebanks search for crabs in North Side. Photo Taneos Ramsay.

The elusive crabs spend most of their lives underground in their burrows along the fringes of the red mangrove swamp. Each year, when the spring showers coincide with a full moon, the crabs venture out in search of a mate. Once they finish breeding, the females then set off on a journey from the swamps to the sea where they release their offspring.

The crabs once numbered in the thousands, and would simultaneously march across each district on Grand Cayman. This noticeable presence helped secure them a place on Cayman’s $10 banknotes. But now, Ebanks said those numbers are declining swiftly.

“Years gone by, within half an hour you would have a crocus sack full but, now it’s just a big decrease,” he said.

The number one threat

Habitat loss remains the number one threat to Cayman’s plummeting crab population, according to Fred Burton, the Terrestrial Resources Unit manager at the Department of Environment.

“It’s plain to see – crabs live here and you turn it into a housing lot, there is no crab there anymore; it’s cause and effect,” said Burton.

The latest data from the DoE shows that of the 5,330 acres of mangrove wetlands that once spanned from Prospect to West Bay in 1976, only 1,633 acres remained in 2013. That decrease translates into a 69% loss of total area.

Those mangrove swamps once supported a thriving crab population on the western side of Grand Cayman and this has now almost completely disappeared.

“The crab numbers on that part of Grand Cayman have completely collapsed, because the habitats have been cleared to make way for development,” said Burton.

The DoE does not have statistics on Cayman’s crab population, but Burton said anecdotal data shows a year-on-year decrease in the overall numbers.

“We don’t have any actual numbers on Cayman’s land crab population because they live underground most of the year, but from what we can see, the numbers have decreased,” said Burton.

The decrease is not just evident to long-time residents; Winston Bailey and his wife arrived in Cayman five years ago. Since then, Bailey said, they have noticed the drop in numbers.

“When I first came, there were lots of crabs running, but now you have to search really hard to find them, and if you are really lucky you will find a big one like this,” said Bailey as he held up a large male.

Catherine Childs, the education manager of the National Trust for the Cayman Islands, said the habitat loss is further compounded by the island’s infrastructure developments.

“What we are seeing is that the network of roads around the island has fragmented and divided what remaining habitats spaces are left for the crabs,” said Childs. “So, in some cases, the sea and swamps are intact, but a road runs between them and the crabs must now run that gauntlet of cars to get to the sea to wash their eggs, and then return and run it again to get back to the swamps.”

Limits and quotas won’t help

In the 1980s when Cayman’s fisheries faced potential exhaustion, the DoE implemented catch restrictions, quotas, size limits and designated seasons. These interventions proved successful and are still in place.

Ebanks and Bailey say they believe similar measures could be successfully implemented to help Cayman’s crab numbers rebound.

The DoE is urging people to release female crabs with eggs. Photo Taneos Ramsay.

“I think if they were to put in catch limits and restrictions on the crabs, for example the crabs with eggs, then that could help to bring back up the numbers,” said Ebanks.

Burton said while he agrees with the idea of restricting crabs with eggs from being caught, it is not feasible to implement a whole host of protective measures.

“Can you imagine officers running around checking every bucket or sack?” said Burton. “It’s just not possible, we don’t have the resources to do it. The problem is not with people taking crabs, it’s with the loss of their habitat.

“What I would like to see is that we identify key areas where the population is still thriving and secure them to protect it from future development,” said Burton, a sentiment that has been echoed by Childs.

Halt development to save the crabs

Currently 6% of Cayman’s land falls under the protection of the National Trust, but those areas do not include the central mangrove wetlands in Grand Cayman – which is the last major breeding grounds of the crabs.

“We would like to see the central mangroves protected not just for the crabs but for other species that depend on them,” said Childs. “Those mangroves also hold a tremendous amount of carbon, which is helping to address climate change problems.”

Government has since embarked on a $30 million road-widening and expansion project, which will see the extension of the East-West Arterial that will run through central wetland mangroves. When the road is complete, Childs said she fears it will lead to further fragmentation of the habitats.

“We are urging the Central Planning Authority to not grant permission for the development of the mangrove swamps on the side of the road that runs along the border of the sea,” said Childs.

“I remember when I first moved to Cayman, and I’d go down along South Sound, and in places like Smith Cove, as soon as you arrived, you would hear dozens and dozens of crabs running to their holes,” said Burton. “But those crabs fed on the sea grape trees, all along South Sound, but the sea grape trees were uprooted to make room for condos and now, you can hardly find them.”

Burton warns that, if left unchecked, the rest of Cayman’s land crab population could face a similar fate.

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  1. Here on East End there has been minimal development and loss of habitat for these crabs, yet every night there are cars parked along the road, people wandering about with buckets and flashlights. And yes in the last 15 years, a marked decrease in their numbers. I am inclined to believe that at least on this end of the island, over-harvesting is mostly to blame. Taking every crab they can see, including females who have not yet released their eggs. However you look at it, people’s selfishness is to blame for their demise. Leave the poor animals alone to breed and live in peace. Food is not to scarce or expensive that you need to kill them to eat.

  2. 20 years ago, very few people were chasing the land crabs. Today I see so many people with buckets chasing crab and selling them to friends and neighbors without the skill or inclination to do the same. To my eye the obvious problem is not habitat loss. It’s purely economic driven over-harvesting. There is still lots of habitat on Grand even with the development that has occurred.