The story under Shore hermit crab's shells

Huelsenbeck buys the colorful painted shells for his hermit crabs from many countries, including Malaysia and the Philippines.
Huelsenbeck buys the colorful painted shells for his hermit crabs from many countries, including Malaysia and the Philippines.
Posted: August 11, 2014

OCEAN CITY, N.J. - You wouldn't know it by the petite tank in tow, but the Merchlinsky family emerged from George's Beach Shop on the boardwalk in this Shore town on a recent sunny day with three new pets - from Haiti.

Their new companions? Batman, Spiderman, and Blue - three hermit crabs with painted shells that earned them all-too-obvious names.

Just weeks ago, the small crustaceans were crawling about the sun-soaked shores of the Caribbean. Now, they were heading to the family's home in Mahanoy City, a small town in Pennsylvania's coal region.

"It's like an annual thing," said Greg Merchlinsky, 44, a high school electrical-technology teacher who was with his wife and two sons. "We build up a hermit crab army."

That's what you might call the thousands of critters crawling about wire cages, creating a perpetual clinking noise, at a light-blue warehouse in West Creek, nearly 40 miles north of Ocean City.

Behind this wholesale operation - one of only a handful of such distributors in the country - is William Huelsenbeck, who is also known as the mayor of Ship Bottom.

Huelsenbeck and his wife, Martha, annually import an estimated 200,000 Caribbean hermit crabs (known also as "Purple Pinchers" for the color of their claws, or by their scientific name, Coenobita clypeatus).

While the crabs have long been considered an unofficial pet of the Shore, they're actually quite the global souvenirs.

Through collection operations in Cap-Haitien in the north and Port-au-Prince in the south, the crabs are handpicked from the wild, often at night, before being flown to the United States - eventually landing in Philadelphia or New York, where Huelsenbeck or his employees retrieve them.

As for their colorful, sometimes-superhero-themed homes, a gold sticker on the shells in one box at the warehouse indicates: "Made in India." Huelsenbeck buys the painted shells from many countries, including Malaysia and the Philippines.

"Every August, we sit down with our suppliers," he said. "We change them up - glow-in-the-dark, sharks, dinosaurs."

Boom as turtles fail

With an import/export license from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Huelsenbecks, who began their wholesale operation in the 1980s, deliver hermit crabs to pet stores and shops as far away as Seattle.

But Huelsenbeck said many of his customers are seasonal shops along the Shore (including George's). That's how Shell Shanty began, too.

The Huelsenbecks started the company as a seashell store in Beach Haven in the early '70s, and started selling hermit crabs as they gained popularity in the area. Huelsenbeck said he believes the crab demand boomed when painted turtles were found to carry salmonella, hampering their sale.

"The hermit crab took off from there," Huelsenbeck, 68, said.

Ocean Treasures owner Sherrie Hanley has been selling hermit crabs at her Ocean City boardwalk store for 16 years. "It's a Shore thing," Hanley said in her shop, which also sells beach-themed decor.

In 1985, the Huelsenbecks acquired the wholesale business from a mentor in North Carolina.

When he's not looking after the crabs, Huelsenbeck is serving as mayor of Ship Bottom, a small borough on Long Beach Island with nearly 1,200 year-round residents. Huelsenbeck has held his office since 1999, and it's a job he intends to keep for another term (he's uncontested this year).

What do his constituents think about his crab job? "I don't think people pay much attention to that," said Huelsenbeck, who worked for Verizon as a union representative and in other capacities for 31 years. "It's no different than . . . another job."

The husband and wife have published a hermit crab care book. Martha Huelsenbeck also wrote a children's book, aptly named Hermit the Crab, which the couple's niece illustrated as part of a high school art project.

"The shell that he carries must fit him just right," the book reads, "not too big or too small, not heavy but light."

'A really good pet'

Hermit crabs are advertised as being low maintenance (no walks outside), quiet (apart from the occasional croaking), and docile (though they may pinch if they fear they will fall).

They're also cheap - in some cases, complimentary. Many shops offer the first crab free with the purchase of a cage or tank (for some, $8.99).

Longtime sellers of hermit crabs say the pets are a good introduction for children to learn to care for an animal. "That makes them a really good pet," Huelsenbeck said.

 Yet some say sufficient care lacks when crabs are viewed as a vacation memento.

Judith Weis, a Rutgers University professor emerita and author of Walking Sideways: The Remarkable World of Crabs, said in an e-mail that the creatures can last a decade if cared for properly.

But, she added, "the majority of crabs are bought as 'souvenirs,' rather than real pets . . . [they] die in a few months."

Rachel Hamilla, an administrator with the international Hermit Crab Association, said her group advocates for better education about care for the crabs. The HCA has reported some crabs living as long as 40 years.

Merchlinsky said his family's new pets would be greeted by a collection of shells, logs, and other accessories left from the 20 or so crabs they've taken home over the years.

He estimated the new pets would survive six months: "At least we make the six months they live at home a happy six months."

Crab care

All hermit crabs are born at sea, but Caribbean crabs live on land.

"They're not domesticated," Hamilla said. But "they do know the difference between a stranger and the person who provides them with food."

With 10 legs and two antennae, the crabs need bigger shells to suit their bodies as they grow - for protection and moisture.

Key conditions include a humid environment, water, and food (in the wild, they're scavengers). The Huelsenbecks sell a slew of products - including cages, sponges, and a nondescript food blend.

There's also an ingredient to crab happiness that makes their name a bit of a misnomer: company. Hermit crabs are social. It's good to purchase more than one.

Traditions

For its part, Ocean City has wrapped its collective claw around the hermit crab.

For 40 years, the city has held an annual Miss Crustacean beauty pageant and a "King of Klutz" hermit crab race.

At the race Wednesday, Red Knight Jr., a medium-size crab with a Spider-Man shell belonging to Mason Ritter, triumphed. The crab (named in honor of another the 10-year-old had two years ago) came from Ocean Treasures and, by extension, the Huelsenbeck pipeline.

"This is our family tradition," his mother, Sharon, 46, a podiatrist from Catonsville, Md., said, "as funny as it may be."

And when the crabs go, she said, "we keep the shells."


afichera@philly.com

856-779-3917 @AJFichera

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