Merv Cooper’s motto is “a house is not a home without a hermit crab.”
Surrounded by thousands of “singing” crabs inside his store in Rockingham, south of Perth, Cooper says people are lining up to get their hands on the quirky “low-maintenance” pet.
“They are a bit noisy, some of them squeak, mostly at night,” he said.
“[We’ve got] about 5,000 crabs in stock, changing hands in the next three to four weeks, and then we’ll get some more.”
The former pearl diver has been collecting and exporting the popular Australian land hermit crabs for the pet industry for over 40 years and holds the only Western Australian license to export the crabs overseas to Hong Kong, the United States and Korea.
It also supplies up to 50 pet stores in Western Australia and some 20 pet stores in the eastern states.
Mr. Cooper, who holds one of only five crab harvesting licenses in WA, collects thousands of crabs in their shells from the wild on upstate beaches near Exmouth, where this species of hermit crab, Coenobita variabilis, it is endemic.
He trademarked the name Crazy Crabs nearly 40 years ago, popularizing the creatures as attractive and unusual low-maintenance pets.
Cooper said the low price, about $5 for a small crab, made them an ideal first pet for children and families.
“They are not difficult to care for, they are educational,” he said.
Cooper said some crabs he had sold to families had survived up to five years.
“They nip from time to time to keep the kids on their toes, you could say, and you can have five or six in a small tank that we supply.”
Concerns about the ‘disposable’ nature of pets
But there is concern that because they are considered “quirky,” hermit crab pets are not taken seriously.
WA Museum crustacean curator Andrew Hosie said the mascot was sometimes considered expendable.
“They are certainly peculiar [but] there is a perception that they are an easy species to keep as a pet,” Hosie said.
He said that people didn’t realize that in the wild the crab could expect to live quite a long life.
“They can live more than 10 years when kept well, but people don’t expect them to live that long either.
“People will generally expect them to last a couple of years, and because they’re not necessarily that committed to the animal, then the death of the animal isn’t necessarily seen as a big deal.
“But in Perth, if you’re not careful in the winter, the temperatures can get too low for them, which can certainly make them very slow.
“And they can try to bury themselves in the sand and isolate themselves. And then you risk them getting too cold and dying.”
Hosie also said that overcrowding in a single tank could also be problematic for the animal.
Need for a Hermit Crab Rescue Service
Pet store worker Clare Fullston started an online hermit crab rescue group when she noticed customers didn’t know what crabs needed to survive.
Ms Fullston said that people often handed over crabs that they could no longer care for.
“They’re a hands-off pet. Kids end up finding them boring because they’re not supposed to handle them, and they tend to bury themselves in the sand.”
“Kids want pets that they can hold on their lap and hold, but doing so suffocates them and stresses them out because they have modified gills.
“It’s really like having a pet scorpion, fish or tarantula. You look at them and enjoy them, but you don’t actually handle them.”
“I mean, you don’t pull out a fish and start patting it, but it’s very interesting to watch.”
Crabs abundant in nature
According to WA Fisheries, two active operators collected about 80,000 crabs in 2020.
While the value of a hermit crab license was difficult to estimate directly, Fisheries estimates it to range from $1 million to $5 million.
Cooper said that collecting crabs could be pretty hard work.
“[I collect crabs] At 12 pm. The tide is out, there is no rain and no wind when it is very hot,” she said.
“As the tide goes out, you start falling into 150 millimeters of sand and you start walking around with buckets to pick up these crabs. It gets very heavy,” he said.
“So you know you’ve worked when you’ve done five or six hours.
“We only go to our places once or twice a year, so [the population] You have the opportunity to grow.”
Hermit crabs lay their eggs in the ocean, so they cannot breed in captivity.
Tim Nicholas of the WA Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development said the number of individual land hermit crabs caught had declined from the early to mid-2000s, when catches were around 100,000 crabs per year.
He said that despite the number of crabs collected in the wild, the species was abundant.
“Given the large area in which the species is distributed, its early maturation and its long life, it is unlikely that the biomass of the terrestrial hermit crab would be affected by the current level of fishing,” said Nicholas.
But Ms Fullston said people should do their research before confronting a wild-caught crab.
She said people were often surprised to hear that crabs needed a more complex tank setup than the little plastic boxes they were sold in at pet stores, but the correct information was available online.
“People are realizing that these little critters need more care than they realize,” he said.
“I want to make it clear that no animal is a disposable pet.”