Washington state

This hungry crab has been found along Whatcom’s shores. Here’s why we don’t want it here

A hungry invader that poses a threat to the region’s marine life has been found in Whatcom County, most recently in Drayton Harbor where the shell of a European green crab was discovered in August.

It’s not the first time one has been found within Whatcom, but scientists, tribes and volunteers are working to keep the non-native pests from making a home here and elsewhere in the state’s saltwater shorelines.

Three live crabs were found in a trap in Chuckanut Bay in July, and the remains of one were found in Squalicum Harbor in Bellingham in May, marking the first confirmation of the invasive species’ presence in Whatcom County, according to Washington Sea Grant at the University of Washington.

In all, five have been found in Whatcom County since monitoring intensified in 2016 in collaboration with the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife and with the help of volunteers.

Five? That’s not so many.

“How much damage can they do?” acknowledged Emily Grason, a marine ecologist and the Crab Team Program manager for Washington Sea Grant, of a common question.

But it’s what may be lurking that’s of concern.

Green Crab
Scientists are asking for help to keep the invasive European green crab from taking hold in Puget Sound in Washington state. Sean McDonald | Washington Sea Grant Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

“That means there are more out there,” Grason said to The Bellingham Herald.

And if the non-native European green crabs are left alone to reproduce until they become established here, they will become a big problem.

Hungry predators

Considered one of the world’s worst invasive species, Carcinus maenas are voracious eaters and skilled predators that could prey on native shore crab species, compete with native fish for food and hurt the shellfish industry here, according to Washington Sea Grant.

“They will directly compete with and prey on any crab that’s smaller than they are,” Grason said.

And that could include native Dungeness crabs, which are smaller when they’re younger. There’s a commercial fishery for Dungeness in the state.

European green crabs like a variety of coastal habitats and can thrive in wide ranges of temperature and salinity, especially muddy habitats such as salt marshes with deeply cut channels and sloughing banks, according to Washington Sea Grant.

They are native to the shores of the Baltic Sea and the northeastern Atlantic Ocean, ranging from northern Africa to Norway and Iceland. They’ve been a problem on the East Coast, where they are multiplying and have been blamed for the collapse of the soft-shell clam industry in parts of Maine.

Chuckanut Green Crab.jpeg
Three live, invasive European green crabs were trapped in July 2019 in Chuckanut Bay, Wash. Chelsey Buffington/Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

European green crabs were first found on the West Coast, in San Francisco Bay, in 1989, then spread south to Monterey Bay and north to Humboldt Bay in California as well as Coos Bay in Oregon.

They were discovered in Washington state waters in 1998, in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor.

Monitoring in the state has occurred since the late 1990s. Their numbers seemed to dwindle after they were first introduced to Washington, but monitoring intensified in 2016 after they were found for the first time in Washington’s inland waters, in Westcott Bay on San Juan Island.

Crab monitoring season runs April to September.

More recently, Dungeness Spit and Neah Bay on the Olympic Peninsula have been hot spots where hundreds of European green crabs have been found.

Chuckanut Green Crab map.JPG
Three live, invasive European green crabs were trapped in July 2019 in Chuckanut Bay, Wash. Washington Sea Grant Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Get them early

The best way to keep their numbers from growing is to trap them and to do so early. That’s not easy, given the more than 2,500 miles of shoreline in the state where the crabs could survive — something Grason described as being akin to looking for a needle in a haystack.

What’s more, trapping means carrying a lot of gear into muddy environments by foot.

But European green crabs are edible, so why not just eat them?

They’re on the small side, for one, according to Grason.

Then there’s the damage they could do to the marine ecosystem if the population takes hold in the state.

“This particular crab has the potential impact to displace Dungeness crab,” Grason said. “We could be losing lots of other things in the process.”

That loss could include vitally important eelgrass.

Eelgrass meadows provide critical habitat for species, including juvenile salmon and herring as well as molting Dungeness crab, so they’re protected by the state of Washington. They’re also important foraging habitat for migratory shorebirds.

There’s been some evidence, particularly in Canada, that European green crabs damage eelgrass beds by ripping through them as they forage for food, according to Grason.

“If eelgrass is at risk,” Grason said, “then a lot is at risk.”

Green Crab Drayton.jpg
The shell of an invasive European green crab was found by volunteer monitors walking the beach at Drayton Harbor, Wash., in August 2019. It’s the furthest north that they’ve been found along Washington state’s shorelines. Margaret Santamaria Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

How to help

Learn how to identify European green crabs. Then keep your eyes open for them during your beach walks.

Think you see one? Take a photo but leave the crab where it is.

Report possible European green crab sightings by emailing crabteam@uw.edu. Attach photos, taken from different angles and distances, of the crab to the email. Include the location. You will be contacted if more information is needed.

Assist scientists by becoming a volunteer monitor. To do so, email Jeff Adams at jaws@uw.edu or go to https://wsg.washington.edu/crabteam.

Squalicum Green Crab photo.JPG
Washington Sea Grant Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald The remains of an invasive European green crab were found in Squalicum Harbor in Bellingham, Wash., in May 2019. A gull was eating the crab and its discovery marked the first confirmation of the invasive specie’s presence in Whatcom County, Wash.

Green crab ID

Identifying the European green crab can be challenging, partly because the color of its top shell can vary widely. Plus, several native Northwest crabs are green, too.

Here’s what to look for:

Adult green crabs are about 3 inches across at the widest part of their back shell, making them smaller than adult, native Dungeness and rock crabs.

It’s the only crab likely to have five spines (or teeth) present from each eye to the widest point along the front edge of the back shell.

Juveniles can change color to match their surroundings each time they molt. Adults are usually dark-greenish with yellow markings, and often have some orange at the joints. The underside of the crab is off-white, but can often be bright yellow or even red.

Check out “Identifying Green Crabs” on the Crab Team website (https://wsg.washington.edu/greencrab) for more on how to recognize this species.

Squalicum Green Crab fitted.jpeg
The remains of an invasive European green crab were found in Squalicum Harbor in Bellingham, Wash., in May 2019. Washington Sea Grant Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald
Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.