Invasive European green crab could spell disaster for Washington’s seafood industry

Feb 2, 2024, 8:58 AM | Updated: Feb 3, 2024, 8:47 am

Green crab capture...

Crews capture green crabs off Westport. (Photo: Kate Stone)

(Photo: Kate Stone)

As Washington’s coastal Dungeness crab commercial season opens this week — a mean, green menace continues to threaten to create a “crab crisis” in the Pacific Northwest.

KIRO Newsradio’s Kate Stone was invited by a local seafood company to get a firsthand look at the efforts to quell the invasion of European green crabs in Washington waters.

Story originally written Nov. 6, 2023

In a small, standing-room-only open metal boat in the crystal blue water off Westport, Pacific Seafood Company farm manager Raul Membreno Torres directed his team as they pulled up 200 traps, each filled with green clawed crustaceans.

He opened the trap, plucked the green crabs from the seaweed and tossed them into a bucket.

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“Fifteen, Christina!” he relayed the running total to the boat’s captain. If a Dungeness crab or unlucky fish makes it into the pile, they’re thrown back out into the Sound.

“On a good day, we capture about a thousand green crabs,” Torres said. “During the winter, we do this about five times a week.”

It’s a year-round task — even Washington’s coastal winter squalls don’t keep the crew from keeping the traps primed and baited.

“We have to do it,” Torres said. “Just to keep up.”

Invasive European green crabs are multiplying at alarming rates in Washington waters. What was once a nuisance off the coast has gotten the attention of Governor Jay Inslee — and the state is now throwing resources at the growing problem to try to turn the tide.

While the help from state agencies is relatively recent, the green crab is no stranger to local seafood companies.

“They have been in coastal Washington state for several decades, and it’s something that’s been monitored mostly by the shellfish industry,” Miranda Ries, Director of Regulatory Affairs at Pacific Seafood Company, said. “I always say the shellfish farmer is the canary in the coal mine. We are boots on the ground in the estuaries every day, so we see these impacts.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls European green crabs one of the most damaging marine invasive species around. According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, they were discovered on the Washington coast in 1998 in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor and later in Makah Bay. By 2016, they had made their way to the San Juan Islands.

Their population began exploding.

“In just the last three years, we’ve really seen this significant uptick of a population and an expansion of the territory where the green crab is found,” Ries said.

Green crab growth in Washington waters

In 2019, green crabs were detected for the first time at the Lummi Sea Pond near Bellingham. Teams captured 41 there that year. That number jumped to 2,670 in 2020, and a staggering 86,028 in 2021. The Lummi Nation declared a disaster on November 23, 2021, closely followed by the Makah Tribe. The Shoalwater Bay Tribe followed suit at the start of 2022.

Currently, infestations are present at locations along the Washington Coast and in Lummi Bay in Whatcom County and Sooke Basin on southern Vancouver Island in British Columbia, according to the state Department of Fish & Wildlife. Currently, numbers remain low across other areas of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, San Juan Islands, and Bellingham and Padilla bays. Green crabs were first detected in Hood Canal in 2022 and there are persistent concerns that their population will continue to spread.

“The Lummi Sea Pond is kind of the gateway into South Puget Sound and North Puget Sound, which is very frightening,” Ries said. “There isn’t a real predator, nor is there a recreational fishery for them. So that population is pretty much unchecked without these trapping efforts.”

WA Fish and Wildlife: European green crab continues to cause issues

The crisis came so quickly and severely that Inslee issued an emergency proclamation in 2022 — a rare move for an invasive species. His order outlined a major fear: If crabs permanently establish large, widespread populations, they could harm endangered species like salmon (and the struggling Southern Resident orcas that feed on them).

A single green crab can eat 22 clams daily, but it also likes a well-rounded diet — overpowering and eating numerous native shellfish. That includes young Dungeness crabs, one of the most valuable fisheries on the West Coast.

If the seafood supply dries up, those crab legs could end up costing an arm and a leg at grocery stores and restaurants. The crabs also threaten cultural resources important to Indigenous peoples and the many businesses that rely on the health of Puget Sound and the Salish Sea, like shellfish growers.

Washington’s Dungeness commercial season kicked off on Feb. 1. It’s later than usual due to poor crab condition tests along the entire West Coast. It’s unclear if green crabs play a role in the depleted Dungeness numbers, but local fisheries aren’t ruling it out.

“While we know that we’re making a difference with our trapping efforts, it’s hard to really know how many green crabs are out there,” Ries said.

Good eating?

If you happen to catch or come across a green crab — can you eat it? According to Ries, you probably won’t want to.

“They don’t taste good,” she said.

“I haven’t tried them,” Torres said, even with hundreds of green crabs a day at his fingertips. “I heard some people do it, but I haven’t seen anybody doing it.”

Related news: Green crabs illegally sold at a Seattle market confiscated

Some people seem to like them.

The state of Oregon’s website features recipes for green crab risotto, ceviche, and fried rice.

There’s more than one cookbook dedicated just to making green crab a culinary delight.

“There’s been some toying around with making things like some beers and bourbons, but that’s using just a very minute amount of green crab,” Ries said. “For the most part, they’re destroyed and wasted, aside from the research that’s done with some of the bodies.”

What to do if you spot a green crab

If a person finds a suspected European green crab or its shell in Washington, they are asked to take a picture and report it to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) as soon as possible. As a prohibited species, possessing a live European green crab in Washington is illegal.

The crabs are not always easy to spot. In fact, sometimes they’re not even green.

The shell will be a giveaway. They’ll have five spines behind each of their eyes. And they’ll only be around four inches wide at most, smaller than a Dungeness crab.

“Overall, they just look very alien-esque,” Ries said.

Green crabs can be mistaken for native crabs. (Photo: Kate Stone, KIRO Newsradio)

State officials say don’t kill them because they’re easily mistaken for native crabs.

Don’t try to transport them yourself, and no matter what, don’t throw them back in the water.

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“We don’t encourage people to just throw them in the garbage, because there could be issues with that as well,” Ries explained. “The most ideal thing to do is to locate a Fish & Wildlife officer; they’re typically around recreational beaches and things like that. They know how to properly handle them, but we absolutely do not want them thrown back into the estuary.”

WDFW has provided crab identification guides and an online reporting form available here. You can also find more information on WDFW’s interactive European Green Crab Hub, which supports the coordination of ongoing emergency measures, data collection and science.

You can read more of Kate Stone’s stories here. Follow Kate on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email her here.

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Invasive European green crab could spell disaster for Washington’s seafood industry