As they munch on plants and burrow through the soil, crabs are wreaking havoc on salt marshes around the country. Or are they? Turns out it depends on where you look, according to a recent study published in the journal Ecology. Conducted by the NOAA-sponsored National Estuarine Research Reserve System, this assessment explored how crabs are affecting the nation’s salt marshes.

New Hampshire’s Great Bay Reserve collaborated with scientists from 14 other Reserves in 13 coastal states to conduct this study. The team found crab burrows in just under half of the plots they sampled. In only four estuaries did researchers find evidence that crabs were having a negative effect on marsh vegetation. This indicates that it is unlikely that crabs pose a major threat to U.S. salt marshes at a broad scale.

“At Great Bay, we found no evidence of marsh destruction arising from crabs, however there is still good reason to be alarmed by the results of our study,” said Chris Peter, the Reserve’s research coordinator.

“Neighboring Reserves in southern New England are experiencing much higher populations of crabs and marsh loss, which is likely a sign of what’s to come for Great Bay. Fiddler and purple marsh crabs, both of which are marsh burrowing species that are not yet established in New Hampshire, are likely to migrate northwards as water temperatures rise.”

There are many other types of crabs that live in estuaries, including those that support commercial fisheries. This study focused on the types of crabs that live in tidal creeks and salt marshes. At first glance, the study appears to contradict recent experiments that demonstrated that crabs can cause dramatic die-off of marsh vegetation. It turns out, however, that when it comes to crab research, location is everything. These experiments are labor intensive, involving the installation of many cages. As a result, researchers often position cages where they see lots of crab burrows, which tends to be at lower elevations and near tidal creek banks.

This study systematically sampled salt marshes along transect lines that extended from the uplands down to the edge of tidal creeks. Transects are straight lines along which samples are taken at fixed, predetermined intervals to minimize bias. Few crabs were found in most places, but they were abundant near tidal creeks in some estuaries— the same sorts of places where past experiments have been conducted.

“Patterns in nature differ across scales,” notes Kerstin Wasson, the lead author of the study and a research coordinator at California’s Elkhorn Slough Reserve. “What is true at one scale may not be true at another. We found that crabs can cause a lot of harm at a local scale, in some parts of some marshes, but they don’t seem to be a main cause of marsh dieback at a national scale.”

While crabs did not have a strong overall influence on salt marshes, elevation did. Lower parts of the marsh are submerged more often and tend to have poorer overall health. This study suggests that rising sea levels associated with climate change pose a bigger threat to the nation’s salt marshes than do crabs. However, since the study found that crabs are more abundant, and cause more harm, at low elevations, climate change will also impact the effects that crabs have on marshes. 

“We’ll be seeing more crabs in our marshes as waters rise,” says Dr. Kenny Raposa of the Narragansett Bay Reserve in Rhode Island, another lead scientist of the study. “The health of our marshes will be challenged by rising seas and increasing crab burrows at the same time.”  

Restoration measures that help marshes stay higher, where they are less likely to be susceptible to rising seas or crab burrows, will be essential to protect the salt marshes that provide economic benefits to communities nationwide. Raposa and Wasson are leading another collaborative study across eight Reserves (including Great Bay) that is examining the effectiveness of adding soil to raise marshes to help them survive in the future.

“With scientists following consistent protocols that monitor coastal plants at 29 sites around the country, the Reserve system is providing high quality data and science that communities need to manage our changing coasts,” says Rebecca Roth, the executive director of the National Estuarine Research Reserve Association. “Reserves are places with scientists that can detect early signs of threats and then test strategies to make communities safer and more resilient.”

Contact: Chris Peter