Significant low tides have recently introduced many to the wonders of the intertidal zone.
Negative tides for several days led to starfish and crab delights. While it may sound counterintuitive, there’s one creature lurking in the shallows that no beachgoer wants to see: the European green crab.
None of these crabs have been spotted in the waters of Gig Harbor beforehand. While none have been found in the Puget Sound south of Admiralty Inlet, they were recently discovered in Hood Canal and removed from the Seabeck area.
Early detection and awareness is a great tool against their spread to the South Sound.
European green crabs are easily confused with the native hairy helmet crab (Telmessus cheiragonus). Despite its name, the European green crab’s most distinguishing feature is not its color — which can range from reddish to dark mottled green — but the five spines on either side of the shell near its eyes.
These crabs are rarely larger than 3.5 to 4 inches. Helmet crabs, on the other hand, have six spines, are generally lime green in color and have a distinctive furry appearance.
European green crabs have a major impact on the environment around them. They eat mussels, oysters and smaller beach crabs. And while they can’t crack the shell of mature oysters, they prey on young oysters, burrowing up to 6 inches (15 cm) into the sand to consume mussels.
They have decimated aquaculture worldwide while damaging the habitat of seagrass, which is critical to salmon and many other species.
The first detection of green crabs in Washington was in 1998 on the coast in low numbers. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), “Detection in the Salish Sea occurred in Sooke Basin, British Columbia in 2012, and then in the San Juan Islands and Padilla Bay in 2016.”
In 2018, state and federal agencies, as well as tribes and partners, began detecting significant increases in European green crab populations in Willapa Bay, Grays Harbor, Makah Bay and Lummi Bay. According to WDFW, these increases may be related to warmer water conditions, especially in 2021.
In 2020, WDFW received a one-time provision of $783,000 to fight European green crabs, and an additional $2.3 million in ongoing funding in 2021. Then, earlier this year on January 19, Governor Jay Inslee issued an emergency proclamation to stop the exponential increase in populations detected in the Lummi Nation’s Sea Pond and the outer coastal areas.
The Washington state legislature has allocated $8,568 million in funding for European green crab emergency measures. On April 18, a formal response mission was assigned to the Washington State Emergency Department.
This funding supports a collaboration between WDFW, tribes, other state and federal agencies, shellfish farmers, and private tidal land owners to establish a “coordinated response, hire and deploy personnel, and purchase and deploy equipment.” distribute to areas with known pests.”
More than 64,000 European green crabs have been removed from Washington waters this year alone.
If beachgoers believe they have spotted a European green crab, WDFW requests that they take a photo of the crab and report it as soon as possible. Identification guides and an online report form can be found on the WDFW website. Do not kill or save suspected green crabs as they can be easily misidentified for our native species.
Traps are currently deployed in infestation areas, marked by a bright orange buoy and official tag/permit; please don’t mess with it.
While “be crab aware” may not be completely off the mark, with a little luck our southern Puget Sound waters will remain clear of European green crabs.