The men - Kevin Le, 38, Son Van Nguyen, 53, and Dung Q. Nguyen, 41 - were arrested after being observed loading dozens of Limulus polyphemus into a pickup truck, according to police.
Initially, they were charged with illegal commercial harvesting of horseshoe crabs, which carries a maximum first-time fine of $10,000, according to Larry Hajna, spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
"However, since this is still under investigation and it's unclear exactly why they were taking these horseshoe crabs, they were subsequently issued summonses for harvesting horseshoe crabs without a permit and out of season. This carries a fine of $300 to $3,000 for a first offense," he said.
The creatures were safely returned to the ocean, said Ocean City police spokesman Steven K. Ang.
"We believe they were going to sell them for food to restaurants in Philadelphia, but cannot say what type of food use they can be used for," Ang said.
Search for "horseshoe crab recipes" online and the pickings are mighty slim, with mentions of eating the eggs or roe, especially in Southeast Asian cuisine. Females can lay thousands of eggs, and many can be found inside the shell, or carapace. The eggs in some species found in Thailand, however, can be toxic. The legs have very little meat.
The haul included both males and females, but, Ang added, "I believe they intended to sort them later."
At Le Viet restaurant, a Vietnamese restaurant in South Philadelphia, manager Rick Cao said he never heard of horseshoe crabmeat or eggs being used in cooking.
"Not even for bait, either, as well," he said.
Not crustaceans, like tasty crabs and lobsters, horseshoe crabs are actually closer cousins to scorpions, spiders, and ticks.
Horseshoe crabs also have been used as bait to catch eels and other fish. Their copper-based blue blood is the basis for tests to determine bacterial contamination in medicines, but the creatures can be returned to the sea after blood is extracted, according to various sources.
Contact staff writer Peter Mucha at 215-854-4342 or firstname.lastname@example.org.