Nearly 70,000 Invasive Green Crabs Were Captured in Washington State Last Fall

State government officials took emergency actions this month to eradicate the non-native species

A european green crab, a small dark green crustacean, on damp beach sand with kelp
Despite the species’ name, European green crabs’ color varies widely from dark brown to dark green with patches of yellow or orange. MyLoupe via Getty Images

The state of Washington is taking emergency action to fight an infestation of European green crabs, an invasive species that’s had an "exponential increase" in local waterways. Last fall, more than 70,000 crabs were captured and removed from the Lummi Nation's Sea Pond near the Canadian border.

To combat the species' spread, Washington governor Jay Inslee issued an emergency order that includes nearly $9 million in funding, reports Natasha Brennan for the Bellingham Herald. The order directs the state's Department of Fish and Wildlife to implement measures to try to eradicate the crabs, which have taken a foothold in the Lummi Sea Pond and outer coast areas, per the Associated Press.

“The European green crab is a globally-damaging invasive species that, if they become permanently established, will particularly harm endangered species, impact resources that are part of the cultural identity of the tribes and native peoples, and affect small businesses,” Inslee’s office said in a press release.

Despite their name, European green crabs sport a variety of colors. Their shells can appear dark brown to dark green, with patches of yellow or orange, especially on their underside, legs, and claws. Adult crabs are typically around 2.5 inches long and are able to survive in a wide range of water temperatures.

European green crabs, which are native to Europe and northern Africa, likely hitched a ride on European ships in the mid-1800s, per CNN’s Katie Hunt. After the crustaceans arrived on the east coast of the United States, they were credited with destroying Maine’s softshell clam industry within the past decade, per the Bellingham Herald. The crabs were first found on the West Coast in San Francisco Bay in 1989. Then, El Niño currents carried the crabs west to California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia in the late 1990s.

In the Pacific Northwest, the crabs are often found along muddy shoreline habitats and estuaries where they are protected from larger predators. Because green crabs prey on clams and young oysters—as well as other crabs their own size—they can disrupt habitats, push out native species, and damage local economies and cultural traditions.

“Potential impacts [of the species] include destruction of eelgrass beds and estuarine marsh habitats, threats to the harvest of wild shellfish and the shellfish aquaculture industry, the Dungeness crab fishery, salmon recovery, and a complex array of ecological impacts to food webs,” according to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Though the state took steps to address the infestation back in 2019, native tribes highlighted the growing threat that the invasive species pose to tribal cultural and economic interests, Shirin Ali reports for The Hill. The Lummi Indian Business Council and Makah Tribe were among the first to identify the recent population boom of green crabs, according to the governor’s emergency order.

The Lummi Nation has been trying to suppress the invasive crabs since several dozen were found in 2019, but the issue has since escalated. 

“Warming water temperatures due to climate change have only made things worse,” Lummi Nation chairman William Jones Jr. said in a November news release. “Unless action is taken to contain and reduce the problem, we will see this invasive species spread further into Lummi Bay and neighboring areas of the Salish Sea.”