Are we at a crossroads in the green crab invasion on Dungeness Spit?

State biologists are holding out hope that the European green crab invasion at Dungeness Spit can be contained. We may now be going through a critical period, which could result in a permanent infestation or possibly the final throes of the invasion.

Green crabs, an invasive species known to displace native species and cause economic devastation to shellfish growers, were first discovered on April 12 in a marshy area on Graveyard Spit, which juts off from the larger Dungeness Spit in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The total number of green crabs caught in an ongoing intensive trapping program has reached 76. The weekly numbers have been declining, as shown in a chart on this page. That could be a good sign, but biologists are quite reserved in their predictions.

“The numbers are tapering off,” said Allen Pleus, coordinator of the state’s Aquatic Invasive Species Program, “but in my view the numbers are still too high. Eradication would take several weeks of zero. At this point, our main objective is to bring down the population to a point where spawning would not be successful.”

So far, all of the crabs caught are young and small — about 1 to 2.5 inches across their backs. This means that they have not been in the area for long, probably arriving on last year’s currents in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Another good sign is that no other crabs have been caught elsewhere along the Strait, although officials acknowledge that they would like to deploy more traps to capture any early invaders. Also, I am happy to report that no new crabs have been captured this year in Padilla Bay or on San Juan Island, where the state’s first confirmed green crab invasion took place last year. See Water Ways, Sept. 24, 2016.

Update: I’ve been informed that one green crab was caught in April in Padilla Bay where others were caught last year.

The decline in captures at Dungeness Spit may be a sign that some of the crabs have entered their reproductive phase, a period when they don’t eat and so are not attracted to the baited traps. Males and females get together to mate after molting, a phase of development in which they shed their exoskeletons. The trapping effort has reduced the crab numbers and made it more difficult for reproductive males and females to find each other, but each female can produce hundreds of thousands of eggs — so even one successful mating could expand the invasion.

This small male crab is one of the 76 European green crabs caught in traps at Dungeness Spit. // Photo: Allen Pleus

Because the baited traps may not work at this time, officials are experimenting with substrate traps, which are pieces of plastic pipe ranging in size from a half-inch to 2 inches, Allen told me. Young crabs may seek shelter in the tubes. So far, no crabs have been captured that way.

Another idea yet to be tried is baiting traps with pheromones, which are sexual attractants that lure crabs looking for a mate. Allen said he also would like to experiment with electrical stimulation, in which an electrical current is discharged in the muddy substrate to drive crabs out of their burrows. With proper control, no permanent harm comes to them or other creatures in the vicinity, Allen said.

When it comes to controlling future crab invasions in Puget Sound, experts would like to know where the crab larvae are coming from. The leading suspect is a population of green crabs that appear to have settled into Sooke Inlet, just west of Victoria on Vancouver Island in Canada. It is also possible that the larvae drifted in from coastal waters in British Columbia, Washington or even Oregon or California. Experts hope that genetic tests of green crabs from the various locations can be used to identify where the crabs on Dungeness Spit originated.

Emily Grason of Washington Sea Grant coordinates a group of volunteers who monitor traps placed throughout Puget Sound with a goal of stopping the next invasion.

“The presence of green crab in Dungeness Bay, though unfortunate, offers a unique opportunity to test how effective the EDRR (Early Detection-Rapid Response) model is for intervening in a potential green crab invasion,” Emily wrote yesterday in a blog post on the Crab Team website.

“Generally speaking, invasive species are rarely noticed in a new spot until they have already become too abundant to eradicate,” she said. “Though 76 crabs at Dungeness Spit is more than we would ever like to see, the population hasn’t yet reached the numbers that are seen in areas of greatest infestation. And they are, as far as we know, still confined to a relatively small location….

“Preventing and managing biological invasions is similar to planning for a wild fire season: The best thing to do is prevent either invasions or wildfires from taking hold in the first place, but we know that some will occur despite our best efforts. It’s difficult to forecast exactly where, when or how severe they will be when they do pop up, and yet it’s imperative to respond quickly and aggressively as soon as they are detected.”

Emily added that we are fortunate in this area to have the tremendous support of volunteers, partners and beachgoers, all involved in the effort to prevent a permanent invasion of green crabs. Staff and volunteers at the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge have been instrumental in placing and tending the traps placed in that area.

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