Officials in Washington state’s Shellfish Program have
identified a clear pathway to meet a state goal of restoring 10,800
net acres of shellfish beds to a harvestable condition by 2020.
The 10,800-acre target, established by the Puget Sound
Partnership, was considered overly ambitious by many people when
the goal was approved in 2011. Many still believe that the
shellfish restoration effort will go down in flames, along with
other goals, such as increasing chinook salmon and killer whale
populations by 2020.
In reporting on the Shellfish Implementation Strategy, a
document still under development, I’ve learned that the goal is
within reach if enough of the ongoing recovery efforts around Puget
Sound continue to make progress. Please check out my latest stories
the shellfish back” and “Closing
in on the magic number in Samish Bay,” both published in the
Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.
A European green crab invasion may be taking place in Puget
Sound, and Washington Sea Grant intends to enhance its Crab Team
this summer with more volunteers looking in more places than ever
Training is about to get underway, and anyone with an interest
in furthering science while being exposed to the wonders of nature
may participate. It’s not always good weather, but I’ve been
inspired by the camaraderie I’ve witnessed among dedicated
The work involves going out to one or more selected sites each
month from April into September with a team of two to four other
volunteers. It is helpful to have folks who can carry the crab
traps, plastic bins and other equipment. For details, check out the
Washington Sea Grant website.
Invasive saltwater snails, including dreaded oyster drills, seem
to be far more leery of predators than native snails under certain
conditions, according to a new study by Emily Grason, whose
research earned her a doctoral degree from the University of
Why non-native snails in Puget Sound would run and hide while
native species stand their ground remains an open question, but the
difference in behavior might provide an opportunity to better
control the invasive species.
Of course, snails don’t actually run, but I was surprised to
learn that they can move quite rapidly to find hiding places when
they believe they are under attack.
Like many marine animals, snails use chemical clues to figure
out what is happening in their environment. For her experiments,
Emily created a flow-through system with two plastic shoeboxes.
Chemical clues were provided in the upstream bin, while the
reaction of the snails was observed in the downstream bin.
The most dramatic difference between native and non-native
snails seemed to be when ground-up snails were deposited in the
upstream bin, simulating a chemical release caused by a crab or
other predator breaking open snail shells and consuming the tender
Padilla Bay, an extensive inlet east of Anacortes in North Puget
Sound, could become known as an early stronghold of the invasive
European Green crab, a species dreaded for the economic damage it
has brought to other regions of the country.
After one young green crab was found in Padilla Bay on Sept. 19
Ways, Sept. 24), three more crabs were found during an
extensive trapping effort this past week. All four crabs were
captured at different locations in the bay. These four live crabs
followed the finding of a single adult green crab in the San Juan
Islands — the first-ever finding of green crabs anywhere in Puget
Ways, Sept. 15).
With these new findings in Padilla Bay, the goal of containing
the crabs to one area has become a greater challenge. Emily Grason,
who coordinates a volunteer crab-surveillance program for
Washington Sea Grant, discusses the difficulty of putting out
enough traps to cover the entire bay. Read her report on the
fist day of trapping:
“Similar to our trip to San Juan Island, we are conducting
extensive trapping in an effort to learn more about whether there
are more green crabs in Padilla Bay. One difference, however, is
scale. Padilla Bay is massive, and it’s hard to know exactly where
to start. On San Juan Island, the muddy habitats where we thought
crabs would do well are well-defined, and relatively limited.
Padilla Bay, on the other hand, is one giant muddy habitat — well,
not all of it, but certainly a huge portion. We could trap for
weeks and still not cover all of the suitable habitat!”
In all, 192 traps were set up at 31 sites, covering about 20
miles of shoreline. The crab team was fortunate to work with the
expert staff at the Padilla Bay National Estuarine Research
Reserve, a group of folks who know the area well and had worked
with shoreline owners to get approval for access.
Three of the four green crabs caught in Padilla Bay were young,
probably washed into the bay during last winter’s warm currents,
Emily said in her wrap-up
report of the effort.
“All of the detections of European green crabs occurred on the
east portion of the bay,” she wrote. “Though the sites varied
somewhat in the type of habitat, all of the crabs were found
relatively high on the shore, in high salt marsh pools, or within a
few meters of the shore.
“Padilla Bay has about 20 miles of shoreline, and, at last count
in 2004, there were 143 acres of salt marsh habitat in the bay,”
she continued.”These numbers suggest that there are a lot of places
European green crabs could live in Padilla Bay, and protecting the
bay from this global invader will undoubtedly require a cooperative
Yesterday, the response team held a conference call to discuss
what to do next. Team members agreed that no more intensive
trapping would take place this year, Sean McDonald of the
University of Washington told me in an email.
Winter is a tough time to catch crabs. Low tides shift from
daytime hours to nighttime hours, making trapping more difficult.
Meanwhile, crabs tend to lose their appetite during winter months,
so they are less likely to go into the traps to get food, experts
Researchers, shellfish growers and beach walkers are being asked
to stay alert for the green crabs, not only in Padilla Bay but also
in nearby Samish and Fidalgo bays.
The Legislature will need to provide funding to continue the
citizen science volunteer monitoring program, which provided an
early warning that green crabs had invaded Puget Sound. Whether the
crabs will survive and in what numbers is something that demands
more study and perhaps a major eradication effort.
Meanwhile, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife would like
to expand its overall Aquatic Invasive Species Program with
additional efforts to prevent invaders from coming into Puget
Sound. For information, check out my story on invasive species in
of Puget Sound — specifically the section titled “Biofouling
still mostly unregulated.”
A second European green crab has been found in Puget Sound, this
one in Padilla Bay — about 30 miles southeast of where the first
one was discovered about three weeks ago.
Green crabs are an invasive species known to devour a variety of
native species and alter habitats where they have become
established. Keeping green crabs out of Puget Sound has been a goal
of state officials for years.
After the first green crab was caught in a volunteer trapping
program three weeks ago, experts mounted an intensive trapping
effort to see if other green crabs were in the area around Westcott
Bay in the San Juan Islands. (Water
Ways, Sept. 3). No live crabs were found, but one cast-off
shell (molt) was discovered nearby (Water
Ways, Sept. 15).
The latest find is a young female crab, 34 millimeters across,
which may have grown from a larva dispersed last winter.
“We were relieved to find very little evidence of a larger
population of invasive European green crab in Westcott Bay,” Emily
Grason of Washington Sea Grant said in a
news release (PDF 371 kb). “But finding an additional crab at a
site more than 30 miles away suggests that ongoing vigilance is
critical across all Puget Sound shorelines. WSG’s Crab Team is
committed to continuing the efforts of volunteer monitoring as
resources allow, but we also rely on beachgoers to keep a watchful
eye out for this invasive species.”
A second rapid-response effort will get underway Monday with
more traps being deployed over a larger area than last time. The
goal is to locate any crabs that may have made a home in the area
and determine where the crabs might be gaining a foothold.
No European green crabs were caught this week during an
intensive two-day trapping program designed to see if any of the
invasive crabs have gained a foothold in the San Juan Islands.
If you recall, a single adult green crab was trapped Aug. 31 by
a team of volunteers in the San Juan Islands. It was the first
green crab ever found in Puget Sound, but experts have been worried
about the crab for years. (See
Water Ways, Sept. 3.) The volunteers are involved in a citizen
science monitoring program to locate green crabs when they first
arrive in Puget Sound and before they become a breeding
The response by professional leaders of the Crab Team was to
place 97 traps in and around the location where the first crab was
found. The effort was started on Monday and repeated on Tuesday.
The maps on this page show the locations and the number of traps
place at site on the two days. Hundreds of native crabs were
trapped and inspected, but no green crabs were found.
Although no live crabs were found, one molt (cast-off shell)
from a green crab was found by Jeff Adams, a marine ecologist for
Washington Sea Grant who manages the Crab Team of volunteers. The
molt was close to where the live crab was found. The experts have
not determined if the molt came from the first crab or if there
might be other crabs in the area.
The next step is still being planned. It could involve another
intensive trapping effort, perhaps in the spring, as well as
increasing the number of volunteer trapping sites in the San Juan
Islands. The volunteer program takes a hiatus in the winter, when
the crabs are less active, but it will resume in the spring.
The next green crab training program is scheduled for March,
when new and former citizen science volunteers will be taught how
to identify green crabs and conduct an effective trapping effort in
up to 30 locations throughout Puget Sound. To learn more about the
volunteer program, check the Washington Sea Grant webpage
“Get Involved” or sign up for a free email newsletter called
“Crab Team News” (click “Newsletters”).
Emily Grason, Crab Team coordinator for Washington Sea Grant,
was involved in the two-day intensive trapping program. Emily blogs
about the effort on the Crab Team website:
A European green crab, one of the most dreaded invasive species
in the world, has finally arrived in Puget Sound.
A single adult green crab was caught in a trap deployed on San
Juan Island by a team of volunteers involved in a regionwide effort
to locate the invasive crabs before they become an established
Until now, green crabs have never been found in Puget Sound,
although they have managed to establish breeding populations along
the West Coast — including Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor in
Washington and the western side of Vancouver Island in British
Here’s what I wrote: “Puget Sound has so far avoided an
invasion of European green crabs — at least none have been found —
but the threat could be just around the corner….
“Green crabs are but one of the invasive species threatening
Washington state, but they are getting special attention because of
fears they could seriously affect the economy and ecosystem of
Puget Sound. Besides devouring young native crabs and shellfish,
they compete for food with a variety of species, including fish and
In Canada, one breeding population has been identified in Sooke
Inlet near the southernmost tip of Vancouver Island. That’s about
40 miles away from Westcott Bay, where Puget Sound’s first green
crab was found on Tuesday.
It is likely that the crab traveled to San Juan Island in its
early free-swimming larval form by drifting with the currents, said
Jeff Adams, a marine ecologist for Washington Sea Grant who manages
the Crab Team of volunteers. This crab likely settled down in
suitable habitat and located enough food to grow into an adult.
Based on the crab’s size, it probably arrived last year, Jeff told
Finding a green crab in Puget Sound is alarming, Jeff said, but
it is a good sign that the first crab was found by the volunteer
monitors. That suggests that the trapping program is working. If
this first crab turns out to be a single individual without a mate,
then the threat would die out, at least for now.
The concern is that if one crab can survive in Puget Sound, then
others may also be lurking around, increasing the chance of
male-female pairing. The next step is to conduct a more extensive
trapping effort in the area where the first green crab was found,
then branch out to other suitable habitats in the San Juan Islands,
Jeff said. The expanded effort is planned for the week of Sept. 11
and will include a search for molts — the shells left behind when
crabs outgrow their exoskeletons and enter a new stage of
Researchers and others who work with invasive species quickly
recovered from their initial surprise at finding a green crab in
Puget Sound, then got down to business in planning how to survey
for crabs and manage their potential impacts.
Allen Pleus, coordinator of the Aquatic Invasive Species Program
at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, told me several
weeks ago that if green crabs show up in Puget Sound, one idea
would be to conduct an extensive trapping program to eradicate or
at least reduce their population. First, however, the extent of the
infestation must be identified. I expect that more extensive
trapping will be planned next spring and summer to look for
offspring from any successful mating in the San Juan Islands.
This video shows a green crab found in Willapa Bay on the
Typically, green crabs are found in marshy areas, which are
habitats extensively used by our native hairy shore crab. But Jeff
tells me that some populations of green crabs seem to be expanding
their habitat into more exposed rocky areas.
With roughly 400 suitable sites for the crabs in Puget Sound,
invasive species experts are calling for everyone who visits a
beach to look for green crabs and their molts. One can learn to
identify green crabs from the
Washington Sea Grant website. The volunteer trapping program is
funded by the Environmental Protection Agency with a grant to Fish
A public discussion about green crabs and how people can help
protect Puget Sound from an invasion is scheduled for Sept. 13 at
Friday Harbor Laboratories on San Juan Island. See Crab
Team Public Presentation.
We hear about the “balance of nature,” but it’s not something
that we can truly understand until the balance is thrown out of
whack by something like climate change or invasive species.
Until I began a recent reporting project for Puget
Sound Institute, I never realized that San Francisco Bay was
such a hotbed of invasive species. Beginning with the California
Gold Rush, ships began moving in and out of the bay in unbelievable
numbers, arriving from ports all around the world. Now, more than
200 non-native species are making their permanent home in the bay —
including some species that have thoroughly altered the local
So far, we have been lucky in Puget Sound. Experts say we have
about 75 firmly established non-native species, yet none of them
have created the widespread damage caused in San Francisco Bay by
European green crabs and Asian clams or in the Great Lakes by zebra
mussels. The video on this page does a good job of telling the
Great Lakes story, which has been repeated all over the world.
Once people in Washington state realized how disruptive invasive
species can be, the struggle was on to protect Puget Sound from
alien invaders — particularly those found in San Francisco Bay,
which is just a short hop away on the world scale. My series of
stories talks about concerns for Puget Sound and the efforts to
control a possible invasion.
Invasive species range in size from microscopic viruses to
four-foot-long striped bass. In California, the striped bass became
a prized sport fish after it was intentionally introduced in 1879.
But over the past decade concerns have grown for their effects on
the salmon population. The jury is still out on whether high
numbers of stripers should be sustained for anglers or the
population should be fished down rapidly to save salmon and other
species. Check out these stories:
Meanwhile, striped bass have been moving up the West Coast,
possibly because of warmer waters due to climate change. A few
years ago, a 55-pounder was caught in the Columbia River, and I’ve
heard rumors that they have been seen in the Strait of Juan de
On the small side, I report on a tiny crustacean, an invasive
copepod that has almost entirely displaced native copepods in
Samish Bay in northern Puget Sound. Copepods are important prey for
small fish, including herring, which feed the larger salmon. The
invasive copepods are smaller and more difficult for fish to see,
which could have a cascading effect on the entire food web.
A major concern for Puget Sound biologists is the European green
crab, which could move into Puget Sound from San Francisco Bay in
ballast water or with warm ocean currents during an El Niño year,
like the one just past. As I describe in the new series, a major
program involving citizen science volunteers is ongoing in a search
to find the first green crabs before they gain a foothold.
Pacific oysters, another non-native species, were intentionally
brought to the Northwest from Japan in the early 1900s to replace
the native Olympia oyster, which had been decimated by poor water
quality. Pacific oysters soon became a mainstay of the shellfish
industry in the Puget Sound region and are now growing thick in
Similar introductions of Pacific oysters occurred in California
beginning more than 100 years ago, but for some reason the oyster
populations never took hold, according to a report in the
Fish and Game (PDF 1.7 mb). Finally, in the early 2000s, the
invasion began to take off.
“It remains unclear why there should be a successful invasion
now, given the failure of previous attempts to deliberately
introduce the species both locally and throughout California…,” the
“If populations in Southern California waters do continue to
expand and grow, as they have in other areas where they have
invaded, it will undoubtedly bring changes to the way our estuarine
intertidal habitats function as well as in the way we must manage
“Because Pacific oysters rapidly reach large sizes, they could
pose problems related to fouling of maritime equipment,
infrastructure, and vessels,” the report continues. “Pacific
oysters stand out as one of the most transformative invaders of
As Washington state takes steps to keep alien species from
invading Puget Sound from California, California officials may
adopt similar measures to block invaders from coming into that
Please take a look at this package of stories I wrote for Puget
Sound Institute, with editing by Jeff Rice and design by Kris
This is a campaign slogan going out to Puget Sound crabbers. It
is a positive message, built upon the goals of:
Helping people avoid losing their crab pots,
Reducing the number of crabs that go to waste, and
Increasing the number of crabs available for harvest.
We’ve talked about the problems of lost crab pots that keep on
catching crabs on the bottom of Puget Sound. About 12,000 crab pots
are lost each year in Puget Sound, killing an estimated 178,000
legal-sized Dungeness crabs that would otherwise be served up for
dinner. In January, I described some simple alterations to crab
pots that allow crabs to escape when a pot gets lost. See
Water Ways, Jan. 28.
Even more basic, however, are proven techniques that help people
select equipment and place their crab pots so they don’t get
damaged or lost in the first place.
The Northwest Straits Initiative, authorized by Congress in
1998, has been working on the problem of derelict gear for years,
retrieval of thousands of lost nets and crab pots from Puget
Sound. When it came to enlisting the public’s help in prevention,
campaign organizers realized that everyone was on the same side,
said Jason Morgan of the nonprofit Northwest Straits
“We previously focused on the doom and gloom of it, talking
about so many crabs killed each year,” Jason told me.
Working with sociologists, campaign organizers realized that
“the better way to reach people is not to talk about dead crabs but
to say we want you to catch more crabs and keep your crab
The Northwest Straits Foundation has developed a three-year plan
of action, including education for the public; improved
communication among crabbers, vessel operators and government
officials; and recommendations for improving regulations.
The plan was put together by a working group of 35 people
involved in various aspects of crab harvesting, boat traffic and
“It was a great collaborative process,” Jason said. “There was
no butting of heads or anything like that.”
“Crab pots are lost for a variety of reasons. Causes for loss
generally fall into three categories:
Vessel interaction (both recreational and commercial
Improperly configured gear, including improperly tied knots;
Improperly placed gear.
“All these categories usually include a degree of user error,
either on the part of the crabber, or on the part of the boater or
The plan includes at least 25 strategies for reducing conflicts
between vessel traffic and crab pots, reducing tampering and
sabotage, improving crabbing equipment and pot configuration, and
removing abandoned crab pots during non-crabbing days.
One of the interesting ideas is to require online registration
for recreational crab endorsements on fishing licenses. Applicants
would take a short quiz to make sure they know the rules.
Rich Childers, shellfish manager for Washington Department of
Fish and Wildlife, said the various regulatory proposals in the
plan are under advisement. One idea, which has proven effective, is
to reduce the size of allowable escape cord (“rot cord”) that opens
an escape hatch for the crabs to get out. Studies have shown that
approved escape cord takes between 30 and 148 days to disintegrate,
and most people use larger cord to last longer.
The time that crabs are trapped and dying on the bottom could be
reduced if the rules were changed to require smaller cord. Any rule
changes would include a grace period, Childers said, and it would
be nice if crabbers could obtain the smaller cord for free.
With crab season underway, a series of videos on the theme
“Catch more crab!” couldn’t come at a better time:
Our native Olympia oyster may seem small and meek, but its
slow-growing nature may serve it well under future conditions of
ocean acidification, according to a new study.
In fact, the tiny Olympia oysters appear to reproduce
successfully in waters that can kill the offspring of Pacific
oysters — a species that grows much larger and provides the bulk of
the commercial oyster trade in Washington state.
Unlike Pacific oysters, Olympias don’t begin forming their
shells until two or three days after fertilization, and the
formation progresses slowly, helping to counteract the effects of
corrosive water, according to the author of the new study, George
Waldbusser of Oregon State University.
Betsy Peabody of Puget Sound Restoration Fund said people who
work with Olympia oysters have long suspected that they may have
some advantages over Pacific oysters. Olympia oysters keep their
fertilized eggs in a brood chamber inside the shell until the
larvae are released into the water about two weeks later.
In contrast, the eggs of Pacific oysters are fertilized in the
open water and the resulting larvae must fend for themselves right
While the brood chamber may protect the larvae from predators,
the new study showed that the brood chamber does not protect
against ocean acidification. Corrosive water still circulates
through the mother’s shell, exposing the larvae.
To test how Olympia oysters would do in open waters, the
researchers grew baby oysters outside the brood chamber where they
were exposed to acidified water, noted Matthew Gray, a former
doctoral student in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. He
is now conducting research at the University of Maine.
“Brooding was thought to provide several advantages to
developing young, but we found it does not provide any
physiological advantage to the larvae,” Gray said in an
OSU news release. “They did just as well outside the brood
chamber as inside.”
It appears that a major difference in the development of Pacific
and Olympia oysters lies in their reproductive strategies,
including differences in managing their energetics.
“Pacific oysters churn out tens of millions of eggs, and those
eggs are much smaller than those of native oysters, even though
they eventually become much larger as adults,” Waldbusser said.
“Pacific oysters have less energy invested in each offspring.
Olympia oysters have more of an initial energy investment from Mom
and can spend more time developing their shells and dealing with
The research team found that energy stores in young Pacific
oysters declined by 38.6 percent per hour, compared to 0.9 percent
in Olympia oysters. Pacific oysters put their energy into building
their shells seven times faster than Olympia oysters. The exposure
to acidified water affects shell development. While the larval
oysters may get through the shell-building stage, they often don’t
have enough energy left to survive, Waldbusser said.
Restoration Fund has been working for nearly 20 years to
restore Olympia oysters at 19 priority locations throughout Puget
Sound. The new study lends credence to the effort and support for a
recommendation by the 2012 Blue
Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification. The panel called for
restoring the native oyster to Puget Sound to build resilience into
the ecosystem, according to Betsy Peabody.
“It was a recommendation that came out before we had the
critical science to support it,” Betsy told me. “He (Waldbusser)
has just given us the underlying research that supports that
recommendation. Our grandchildren may be cultivating Olympia
oysters rather than Pacific oysters.”
The panel, appointed by former Gov. Chris Gregoire, called for
maintaining the genetic diversity of native shellfish to provide
the species a fighting chance against ecological changes brought on
by climate change.
Benefits of the Olympia oyster, including so-called ecosystem
services, are described in an article by Eric Wagner in the
of Puget Sound. Healthy oyster reefs offer benefits such as
cleaning up the water, protecting shorelines from erosion and
increasing habitat complexity, which can expand the diversity of
So far, Puget Sound Restoration Fund has restored 50 acres of
shellfish to Puget Sound, working toward a goal of restoring 100
acres by 2020.
Oyster hatcheries in Washington state underwent a temporary
crisis a few years ago when Pacific oyster larvae were dying from
acidified seawater pumped into the hatcheries. The water still
becomes hazardous at times, but careful monitoring of pH levels has
allowed hatchery operators to overcome the problem. When the water
in an oyster hatchery moves beyond an acceptable pH level,
operators add calcium carbonate to alter the pH and support the
oyster larvae with shell-building material.
Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish Farms said older oysters might be
affected in the future as ocean acidification progresses. “We know
things are going to get worse,” he told me.
Because of their small size and high cost of production, Olympia
oysters will never overtake the Pacific oyster in terms of market
share, Bill said, but they are in high demand among people who
appreciate the history of our only native oyster and its unique
The new research by Waldbusser raises the question of whether
the highly commercial Pacific oysters could be bred so that their
larvae grow slower and perhaps overcome the effects of ocean
Joth Davis, senior scientist for Puget Sound Restoration Fund
and senior researcher for Taylor Shellfish, said the market is
strong for a smaller Pacific oyster, so most growers would not
object to one that grows more slowly with greater survival.
Meanwhile, efforts are underway to maintain the genetic
diversity of Olympia oysters and other native species, as growers
begin to think about cultivating more natives. Transplanting
species from one area to another and boosting their populations
with hatcheries creates a potential to override local populations
and weaken overall genetic diversity, Joth said.
Geoduck clams, which can be started in hatcheries and grown on a
large scale, don’t appear to be genetically distinct from one place
to another in Puget Sound, Joth said.
Researchers have found some evidence that Olympia oysters may be
genetically distinct when comparing one area of Puget Sound to
another. But finding genetic differences does not always mean the
population is uniquely adapted to that area, Joth said. Variations
might relate to a random population that settles in a specific
location. Sometimes it takes careful study to make sense of the
Rich Childers, Puget Sound shellfish manager for the Washington
Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the state currently has no
firm rules for transferring native species from one place to
another. With growing interest in cultivating Olympia oysters, sea
cucumbers and other native species, the agency is opening
discussions about what kind of controls might be needed.
“We’ve learned lessons from salmon that you can’t spread
everything from hell and gone,” Rich said. “Should we be looking at
some management or hatchery guidelines that would help maintain
genetic diversity? Should we have laws or policies? These are the
questions that are just starting to surface.”