European green crab (Carcinus maenas)

Hand holds European green crab
European green crab
Category: Crustaceans
Ecosystems: Marine shorelines
Invasive species classification: Prohibited
Invasive species family: Portunidae

If you find a suspected European green crab or its shell in Washington, report it as soon as possible. 
Download the Crab Identification Guide and take pictures to confirm identification. At this time, we are not asking the public to kill suspected green crabs. This may sound counterintuitive, but is intended to protect native crabs from cases of mistaken identity. As an aquatic invasive species of greatest concern, it is illegal to possess a live European green crab in Washington.

Potential threat

Green crab pose a threat to Washington's native shellfish, which are important for recreational and commercial harvest as well as to the shellfish aquaculture industry, and native estuary ecosystems.

In areas where green crab have been able to establish reproducing populations, they have had dramatic impacts on other species, particularly smaller shore crab, clams, and small oysters. While green crab cannot crack the shell of a mature oyster, they can prey upon young oysters, and will dig down six inches to find clams to eat. One green crab can consume 40 half-inch clams a day, as well as other crabs its own size.

The video below details an ecological catastrophe in the making due to European green crabs on the Massachusetts coast. As native scallops, mussels, clams, and protective eelgrass disappear under the explosive invasion of green crabs, scientists, local experts, and residents are scrambling to save the marsh from decimation.

Description and Range

Physical description

European green crab identification
Jeff Adams, Washington Sea Grant

In Washington state, the European green crab is most often confused with native helmet crab or hairy shore crab. The most distinctive feature is not its color – which can vary from reddish to a dark mottled green – but the five spines or teeth on each side of the shell. There are three rounded lobes between the eyes; and the last pair of legs are somewhat flattened. The carapace is broader than it is long and seldom exceeds 3.5 to 4 inches across.

Geographic range

European green crab were first discovered in Washington in 1998 in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor. Since 2016, green crabs have been detected in Padilla Bay, Sequim Bay, and the Dungeness Spit, and in the San Juan Islands.

The European green crab first became established the United States in the mid 1800s, arriving by sailing ship to the Cape Cod region. In the early 1900s they spread northwards, where they are believed to have contributed to the dramatic declines in the soft shell clam fishery as far north as Nova Scotia. In 1989, green crabs were discovered on the West Coast, in San Francisco Bay, and made it into Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia estuaries in the late 1990s helped by strong El Nino currents.

Conservation

Limiting invasion

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has focused much of its efforts in the early detection of green crabs by monitoring locations that offer good habitat for the species. If the species is detected at a new location, WDFW conducts rapid response actions to reduce or eliminate those new populations, and to prevent the spread of European green crab from established locations. 

Washington state prohibits the release of non-native species into Washington’s waters and the intentional import of live green crabs. To reduce risk of unintentional introductions, WDFW restricts movement of shellfish from green crab areas and requires that anyone seeking to move live shellfish into or around state waters be approved for an import or transfer permit, which may include precautionary treatment measures to further reduce risk.

Learn how a broad collaboration of volunteers, agencies, and tribes is working together to keep the crabs at bay in Washington State in this interactive story map.

Emergency measures request for invasive green crab response 2021-22

In 2021, WDFW, tribal co-managers, and partners identified an exponential increase of invasive European green crabs (EGC) within the Lummi Nation’s Sea Pond and outer coast areas, including Makah Bay, Grays Harbor, and Willapa Bay. This poses an imminent threat to Washington’s economic, environmental, and cultural resources. The $2.3 million appropriated by the State Legislature for EGC management in the 2021-23 biennium is not sufficient to control these exploding populations.

On Dec. 14, 2021, Director Susewind submitted an emergency measures request for invasive green crab response to Governor Jay Inslee. While emergency funding was not immediately available, on Jan. 19, 2022, Gov. Inslee issued an emergency order to address the exponential increase in the European green crab population within the Lummi Nation’s Sea Pond and outer coast areas. The proclamation directs WDFW to begin implementation of emergency measures and urges the Legislature to provide additional emergency funding as requested by the WDFW as soon as possible.

Working with the Governor’s office, the Office of Financial Management, tribal co-managers including the Lummi Nation, Makah Tribe, and others, and Washington Sea Grant, WDFW is requesting $8,568,00 million from the State Legislature during the 2022 supplemental session to control increasing European green crab populations.

Washington Sea Grant Crab Team

WDFW has teamed up with the Washington Sea Grant “Crab Team” who is leading a volunteer-based early detection and monitoring program for green crab. The Crab Team is also working to improve the understanding of native salt marsh and pocket estuary organisms and how they could be affected by green crabs. To learn more about early detection, monitoring, and volunteer opportunities, please visit the Sea Grant’s Crab Team website.