More Than A Dozen Invasive Green Crabs Found At Dungeness Spit

As if 2015 didn’t deliver enough devastating consequences for Northwest fish and wildlife, it may also be to blame for more than a dozen invasive crabs discovered in the eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca this month.

Allen Pleus at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife suspects that the 13 European green crabs found at Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge since April 12 were rafted across the straits as larvae during that wretchedly hot, drought-stricken, conflagration of a summer, probably from Sooke Harbor, 25 miles to the west-northwest on the south end of Vancouver Island.

EUROPEAN GREEN CRAB. (WASHINGTON SEA GRANT)

What’s worrisome is that this is the largest group found since the first one was discovered in Washington waters late last summer, at Westcott Bay on San Juan Island, and along with others that turned up in a mainland estuary, it is beginning to suggest a potentially widespread invasion by the unwanted species.

The news couldn’t come at a worse time, either.

According to Pleus, state funding for monitoring could dry up after June 30.

And the agency that’s been getting everybody on the same page about the problem, Washington Sea Grant, could be closed down at the end of this month as federal programs are targeted for elimination in national budget proposals.

THE DISCOVERY of the crabs at Dungeness Bay by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was predicted.

A Sea Grant map shows the waters around the spit are one of dozens upon dozens of nearshore habitats with a “high probability” of hosting the crabs that first arrived on the US East Coast in the 1800s and “dramatically” affected the Maine clam harvest and damaged kelp beds from their digging.

A WASHINGTON SEA GRANT GOOGLE MAP SHOWS LOCATIONS NEARSHORE HABITATS IN PUGET SOUND AND THE STRAITS WITH HIGH (RED STAR) AND MEDIUM (ORANGE TRIANGLE) SUITABILITY FOR EUROPEAN GREEN CRABS TO TAKE HOLD. THE WHITE CIRCLE REPRESENTS THE LOCATION OF THE 13 CRABS FOUND THIS MONTH, AT DUNGENESS SPIT. (WSG)

The worry here is what the crabs could do to eelgrass pastures — so important for our salmonids and other fish — and clam beds, if they establish a sustaining population.

That appears to be what has happened in Sooke Harbor, where one was found in 2012.

Dungeness is the third spot in Washington the crabs have been found in just the last eight months.

Not long after the discovery at Westcott Bay, one was literally turned up “by chance” by beach walkers at Padilla Bay in mid-September. Three more were subsequently trapped there.

“While I am pleased that the crabs are not more abundant, it’s somewhat concerning that they are distributed so broadly,” P. Sean McDonald, a research scientist at the University of Washington and affiliated with Washington Sea Grant, told the Skagit Valley Herald last September, adding, “One crab doesn’t scare me. Two crabs really isn’t that bad. What’s scary is large numbers of crabs coming in and settling broadly throughout Puget Sound.”

Asked yesterday how alarming the latest discovery is, Pleus paused, then said it was hard to say.

It doesn’t mean there’s an established population in Washington waters yet, and none of those from Dungeness had eggs.

However, they were a mix of males and females, and it’s only a matter of time until waters warm enough for the spawn to kick off. Getting rid of as many breeders as possible is the key to keeping the crabs in check.

Growing to only about 3 inches across the back, there’s not much meat on them.

AS IT STANDS, Washington Sea Grant director Penny Dalton says that estimates to continue the monitoring program run around $180,000.

Even as her agency is in serious danger of elimination — and in part the subject of a scathing opinion piece in the New York Times today against cuts to it and NOAA’s budget — Dalton’s hopeful money can be cobbled together to keep the program running.

“We’re going to keep trying. We think it is really important. WDFW is too,” she says.

Dalton says WDFW’s Allen Pleus is working the Washington legislature to secure funding for the coming budget biennium.

With a very serious threat looming to the health of Puget Sound, this is no time for state or federal lawmakers to get crabby about funding this work to head off this invasion.

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