Marked for death
Millions of hermit crabs die each year on their way to your home.
You read that right. Millions.
Hermit crabs are zealously marketed as souvenirs. Living reminders of a beach vacation. Awarded as prizes at county fairs for breaking balloons or tossing ping pong balls into cups. They’re thoughtlessly purchased by parents to hush cries of “I want the Batman one” after passing a shopping mall kiosk.
All of these are wild caught land hermit crabs from the family Coenobitidae who thrive throughout the tropics – on coastlines, islands and atolls of the Indo-West Pacific – and can live as long as 45 years.
“The hermit crabs are living their best life on the beach and along comes a human to collect them, stuff them into bags and load them on hot trucks where they travel to holding facilities,” said Darcy Madsen, founder of The Crab Central Station and advocate for proper hermit crab care in captivity. “Once they arrive, they’re forced out of their natural shells, either by pulling or using a drill press to crack their shells, tossed into a bucket of decorative, but toxic, painted shells. They’ll die without a shell, so they reluctantly choose one even if the paint is still wet.”
Madsen said when a hermit crab dons a shell with wet paint, once dry, the crab will be essentially cemented into the shell, which is a death sentence. So many more will perish before they even reach the holding facilities or get loaded onto planes to cross the ocean.
“When you enter the holding facility, the first thing you notice is the smell,” said Rizky Chandra, who lives in Jakarta, Indonesia, and visited one of these facilities. “The crabs were exposed to tropical heat for several days during transit and more than half that came in were dead. I saw piles of crabs stacked about three feet high – thousands of crabs in each pile all out of their shells.”
They’ll spend several more days in a holding facility without access to food and water before being packed up in large burlap sacks to be shipped to their destination – pet stores, beach souvenir shops, carnivals and mall kiosks.
“They’re starving, dehydrated, scared and injured,” Madsen said. “By the time they get to you and get to your home, a lot of damage has been done – sometimes too much for them to overcome. This leads to them dying not long after being purchased.”
Every time one of these crabs is purchased, it starts the cycle all over again – more will be caught, harvested and transported so they can be replaced, labeled a souvenir, adorned in shiny Spongebob and Paw Patrol shells, and marketed like a box of cereal to children.
“If it were dogs and cats that were dying in such large numbers and that fast after being brought into families’ homes, people would be outraged,” said Stacy Griffith, president of the Land Hermit Crab Owner Society since 2006 and owner of The Crab Street Journal, an online resource focused on hermit crab care and education. “If we’re going to take a wild animal from its beautiful, perfect habitat and hold it captive in our home, it deserves the very best – not treated like a toy that can just be thrown away when you’ve lost interest in it.”
Griffith also said the overwhelming public perception is that because this life is so small and replacing it is inexpensive, it simply doesn’t matter.
“We need to save the wild crabs … save them from being completely wiped out and over-harvested,” she said. “We need to change the way people view hermit crabs. They are not a throw-away pet.”
One person helping drive change is Mary Akers, ocean advocate, artist, published author, vice president of the LHCOS and, now, founder of Hermit House and hermit crab breeder.
A shelled miracle
A baby hermit crab, called a megalopa, is no larger than an ant and resembles a tiny lobster.
In 2018, two megalopa officially became hermit crabs when they climbed inside shells, left the water and burrowed under the sand. Millions of megalopa make this transition yearly in the wild but what sets the journey of these two hermit crabs apart is that it happened in the home of Akers.
Since that time, Akers’ breeding efforts have evolved, and she has successfully raised more than 1,480 baby hermit crabs from zoeae, a free swimming almost microscopic larva, and placed them into homes.
“There are five stages hermit crabs go through along their journey to taking a shell, walking on land and breathing air for the first time,” Akers said. “It takes about a month to transition them to land and then at least a year to get them mature enough to go to new homes.”
Akers said she has been fortunate to learn lessons from others who attempted breeding before her and credits Tammy Weick, owner of the Hermit Crab Patch, as a pioneer for sharing experiences from two rearing attempts ten years earlier.
“Despite our progress, there’s still so much we don’t know – it’s a difficult process and involves replicating an ocean environment complete with wave movement and microscopic food sources,” Akers said. “Breeding crabs in captivity could change all that and give us new insight into how they live in and maintain marine ecosystems.”
Hermit crabs play an important role in ecosystems. They are scavengers and part of nature’s clean up and recycling service, as they forage for rotting animals and dead fish. They live in large communities in the wild and can often be found climbing high up in coastal trees.
The land hermit crab is now rare in some areas of the world due to lack of suitable shells or over-harvesting to meet consumer demands. For example, the land hermit crab population in Bermuda is listed as “vulnerable” under the Protected Species Act 2003.
“Eventually, we’ll get to the point where all the hermit crabs that are for sale are captive bred and none are being taken from the wild,” Akers said.
Changing the industry one baby crab at a time
Once considered impossible, baby hermit crabs raised in captivity are now available for sale online through Josh’s Frogs. Captive bred babies are also available through Hermit House and Crab Central Station by way of the LHCOS Hermit Crab Adoption program. And a portion of each adoption fee goes back to Hermit House, the rest goes to the breeder, to support their breeding efforts.
“There are now four others who have been successful in breeding hermit crabs and raising them to a size suitable for being placed into loving homes and five more people following behind them who are currently attempting,” Akers said. “This is a miraculous opportunity to be part of this journey … to see the crab grow … and have a relationship with it for its entire life. They’re not being ripped from their wild habitat, and they’ve known nothing other than love and well-being.”
Griffith said if people began purchasing only captive bred hermit crabs we could save the wild crabs – save them from being completely wiped out and over-harvested.
“The most important thing we can do is breeding,” said Chandra. “No matter how hard it is, how expensive or time consuming it is … we’ve proven it’s possible.”
And hopefully, slowly, wild crab populations will see some breathing space.
Ways you can get involved
Choose Captive Bred Hermit Crabs
Spread the word
Share this information with your family and friends
Post about hermit crab ethical breeding on social media (add link to social graphics)
Video: A Shelled Miracle
Facebook: Land Hermit Crab Owners Society Group
Care guides: Crabstreet Journal
About the Land Hermit Crab Owners Society
Founded in 1999, the LHCOS advocates to improve the lives of captive land hermit crabs and protect and preserve wild hermit crabs, their habitat and resources like shells. LHCOS core values are Conservation & Community; Advocacy; Research & Rescue; and Education. Learn more about LHCOS.
About Hermit House Breeding
Mary Akers is the founder and executive director of Hermit House, a non-profit organization with a mission to “Keep Wild Hermit Crabs Wild” by establishing a viable captive breeding program so that hermit crabs will no longer be captured from their tropical homes to be marketed as inexpensive ‘starter’ pets for children. She is the first person to successfully breed land hermit crabs in large enough numbers to effect change within the industry. In 2019, she created CRAB CON an annual, international hermit crab conference, bringing together hobbyists, scientists, and hermit crab enthusiasts. Learn more about Hermit House.
About The Crab Central Station
The Crab Central Station’s mission is to educate and advocate for proper hermit crab care and work to end the wild caught industry through ethical captive breeding and adoption. CCS launched a YouTube station in 2019 and began attempting to breed hermit crabs in captivity in 2020. Learn more about CCS.
Written by Brenda Cosola, Edited by Mary Akers, Stacy Griffith