Metlakatla is now catching dozens of invasive green crabs each day

Twenty green crabs laid out in rows on a table, with a bucket full of green crabs next to them
European green crabs collected from Metlakatla’s Tamgas Harbor this week. The crabs were trapped in shrimp pots. (Photo courtesy of Dustin Winter).

Wildlife officials in Metlakatla continue to trap record-setting numbers of invasive European green crabs, which threaten local subsistence food sources and fish habitat. The tribe’s Department of Fish and Wildlife has trapped hundreds of them — but the numbers keep growing.

Months after the first green crab shell was found on the beach in Metlakatla, the community is still trying to figure out how to handle the arrival of a species that officials call one of the most invasive around. They’re known to destroy fish habitat, eat other shellfish and compete for vital resources.

A Sealaska Heritage Institute intern found the first shell of a dead green crab on July 19. That was the first time evidence of the species had been spotted in Alaska. Later that month, more than 10 had been trapped alive.

Four crab shells laid out on a white background to be photographed
Carapaces, or shells, from invasive European green crabs found on the beaches of Annette Island this week. (Courtesy of Dustin Winter/Metlakatla Indian Community)

Dustin Winter directs the tribe’s Department of Fish and Wildlife. He said his department is doing all it can to keep up as the numbers soar. And as of now, that means trapping as much as possible.

“We’re still trying to figure that out. I mean, right now, we’re just trying to do it internally as much as we can  — it’s definitely increased workload for the department,” Winter explained. “But right now, there isn’t any real long term plans as far as moving forward other than what we’re doing. And I mean, we’re going to try to keep those traps in the water in Tamgas Harbor and in other locations as we monitor those areas, too, but short term goal is just keep the traps in the water at Tamgas.”

But so far, that hasn’t seemed to put a dent in the population.

Officials trapped a record 62 crabs on Oct. 4, beating the record of 38 crabs set the day before. And wildlife monitors found another 55 the day after, according to Metlakatla’s mayor.

Winter said Tamgas Harbor has turned into a hotspot for the crabs.

“Well, it’s pretty concerning for us,” he said. “I mean, we’re going from single digits to, you know, we have a record of 11 last week, and then 13, at the end of the week, and then this week, we’ve got, you know, one day, catch of 38. And the next day is 62. So it’s very concerning.”

A man sits on a floor messing with a small crab trap
Spencer Guthrie with Metlakatla Indian Community’s Division of Fish and Wildlife works on an oyster bucket this summer. The container was used to trap green crabs. (Photo courtesy of Albert Smith).

Wildlife officials have been setting shrimp pots to catch the crabs. 

“They’re (the pots are) real fine mesh,” Winter said. “I think they’re only like a half inch mesh, though. Because the juvenile crab that we were catching at the beginning were pretty small. So the shrimp pots are working really well.”

When they’re caught, wildlife officials collect biological information and freeze them.

Once the crabs are dead, they’re tossed into the compost pile at Metlakatla’s community garden.

Communities across the Pacific Northwest and the country have struggled to fight the spread of invasive green crabs. Most efforts have focused on trapping as many as possible.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declared an ongoing state of emergency in January because of the crab invasion across the state.

Chase Gunnell is a public information officer for Washington’s Fish and Wildlife Department. He explained that the crabs have been around the state for more than 20 years, but they’ve recently spiked to concerning levels in Puget Sound and the Salish Sea.

“We, at this point, have removed more than 170,000 European Green crabs from Washington waters this year alone,” Gunnell said.

He said trapping is the only technique that Washington has used against the crabs.

“And our real focus is really ‘boots in the mud,’ getting traps out there, (and) helping to identify, to coach the public on how to identify European Green crabs so they can report them,” Gunnell said. “But our focus is on population control through trapping.”

But he said he doesn’t think wildlife authorities will be able to exterminate the species.

“We are very concerned about potential impacts on our native species and aquaculture, and we do want to do everything we can, and to control this invasive species,” Gunnell said. “At least in Washington, we don’t expect that we’ll be able to eradicate them. We know that they’re here, we’re not going to be able to remove all of them from our waters.”

Further down the coast, wildlife officials are trying to make the crabs an attractive target for fishermen. In Oregon this summer, officials raised the recreational bag limit of the crabs to 35 — that’s to try and stop crabbers from throwing any green crabs they catch by accident back into the water to avoid fines. There are even a few recipes floating around Oregon’s government website.

A hand holding a green crab
An invasive green crab that was collected in Metlakatla this summer. (Photo courtesy of Albert Smith).

And some have tried some even more creative solutions: a distillery in New Hampshire is turning the creatures into crab-flavored whiskey.

Officials are asking Alaskans in Metlakatla and elsewhere to keep an eye out for green crabs. European green crabs are the only species in Alaska that has three bumps between its eyes, and five spines behind each eye.

Winter said that anyone who thinks they’ve seen a green crab — dead or alive — should contact Metlakatla’s Fish and Wildlife Department. Anyone who spots European green crabs outside of Metlakatla is encouraged to call the Invasive Species Hotline at 1-877-INVASIV.

More information can be found at alaskainvasives.org.

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