U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agriculture specialists at the Port of Cincinnati intercepted 51 shipments — about 3,400 pounds or 3,700 crustaceans — of invasive mitten crabs over the past four months, agency officials announced last week.
The seizures in the Cincinnati area were part of a national enforcement effort code-named “Hidden Mitten” led by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which prevented the illegal and potentially harmful import into the United States of about 15,000 live Chinese mitten crabs, that agency said. The shipments originated in China and Hong Kong and were destined for residences and businesses in multiple U.S. states, although most were headed to New York, federal officials said.
Chinese mitten crabs are one of North America’s most invasive species and pose a serious threat to humans and the environment, the federal fish-and-wildlife agency said in a release. In high densities they can cause a number of problems. The crabs may out-compete native species for food and space; undermine flood levees and cause stream bank erosion; clog screens, pumps and water intake structures at fish collection facilities and power plants; and hurt commercial and recreational fishing industries by consuming bait and damaging fishing nets.
Mitten crabs are considered a culinary delicacy in Asia and are smuggled into the United States in large quantities in preparation for Chinese New Year and other cultural events, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials said. Each crab can retail for as much as $50, federal officials said.
The species is also a carrier of Oriental lung fluke, a parasitic disease that can be transferred to humans in raw or undercooked crab meat, agency officials said. Tests have not shown any Oriental lung fluke in any of the mitten crabs seized within the U.S., agency officials said.
Wildlife inspectors, assisted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CPB) officers, seized the crabs at U.S. express hubs and major international airports, including the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. Smugglers had falsely declared the shipments as T-shirts, jeans, auto part samples, shopping bags, photo albums and other commercial products, federal officials said.
“Chinese mitten crabs pose a significant threat to humans, the environment and our economy,” Rob Wallace, assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks at the U.S. Department of the Interior, said in a release.
In the U.S., mitten crabs have already spread to several California waterways, the Chesapeake and Delaware bays, and the Hudson River, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials said. The crabs were introduced either intentionally to create a future food supply or accidentally through the discharge of contaminated ship ballast water.
Once introduced to a new location, the crabs can spread rapidly. Female mitten crabs are capable of producing 100,000 to 1 million eggs per brood, and crabs can migrate up to 11 miles per day.
It is illegal to import, export, sell, acquire or purchase mitten crabs and other injurious wildlife without a permit, federal officials said. Violations are punishable by up to six months in prison and fines as high as $5,000 for individuals or $10,000 for organizations.
So what was the ultimate fate of those crabs that were seized? A spokesman for Customs and Border Protection said late Friday that there were “destroyed with steam sterilization.”