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If You're Wondering About All Those Dead Crabs on Oregon / Washington Coast

Published 06/10/2020 at 1:24 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

If You're Wondering About All Those Dead Crabs on Oregon / Washington Coast

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(Rockaway Beach, Oregon) – It’s right on time but a tad disturbing: those masses of discarded crab shells are being found again on the Oregon coast. The sight often alarms visitors to these shores and and the Washington coast, with huge chunks of sand littered with the semi-apocalyptic sight of dead crab everywhere. (Photos courtesy Seaside Aquarium)

They are not dead, however – they’ve simply vacated the premises. They’re gone from the homes they live in: their shells. This happens in the spring and then again late summer, usually with more of them at that time.

Science calls it crab exuvia, according to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW). Essentially, they’ve molted, or shed their shells and are getting ready to grow new ones.

“It can look like a major disaster occurred to the crab population, but it’s as natural as kids outgrowing their old shoes,” ODFW said.

Tiffany Boothe of Seaside Aquarium discovered a section of beach with them again this week, saying “It’s that time of year again.”

“Empty crab shells littering the beach are often mistaken for dead crabs,” she said. “As part of their growth process, crabs actually shed their old shells as they grow new ones.”

In springtime it’s the females that do this. Come late summer, it’s the males and their shells are larger.

Do they do this on shore? Nope, Boothe said.

“Discarded crab shells settle on the ocean floor until strong currents wash them ashore,” she said. “Molted crab shells have all the external parts intact - including legs, antennae, eyes, and gill supports, which makes it difficult to tell whether or not you are looking at a dead crab or just a molt.”

It’s not just any crab: it’s the yummy Dungeness crab. But before you get to drooling over the possibility of a free dinner off the beach, you won’t find them with their meat intact. This is just the shells and exoskeleton parts.

Reports often come in from all over the Oregon coast and certainly the southern Washington coast. Usually the volunteer organization CoastWatch encounters quite a few when these wash up and the reports are posted to its site. There have been no obvious reports elsewhere yet, but it’s usually just a matter of time.

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