Southern California red crab invasion intensifies

Red crabs swarming 1 mile off San Clemente. Photo: ©Geoff Glenn

The invasion of pelagic red crabs along the Southern California coast has intensified during the past week, and judging by photos circulating on the Web, there seems to be no end in sight.

The brightly colored crustaceans, which typically exist in deep water and much farther south, have flooded coastal waters in San Diego and Orange County, and washed onto beaches and into harbors, creating an enormous mess while wreaking minor havoc in the surf zone.

Donna Kalez stoops amid thousands of red crabs at Salt Creek. Photo: Dana Wharf Sportfishing

“They were pinching me out there,” Ethan Mudge, an amateur surfer told the Orange County Register, in reference to a contest last Sunday at Salt Creek in Orange County. “They were hard to paddle through.”

The crabs’ influx, which began about a month ago, is linked either to a strengthening El Niño, a warm-water phenomenon originating in the equatorial eastern Pacific, or another warm-water event referred to by scientists as the “warm blob.”

Red crab hides in the kelp. Photo: ©Geoff Glenn
A lone red crab swims near a kelp bed. Photo: ©Geoff Glenn

Not since the powerful El Niño of 1997-98 has there been a red crab invasion in Southern California that came close to resembling this one.

In Orange County, so many crabs are ending up beaches, where they promptly die, that a stench wafts across the air.

“I’m really hoping they come in and rake them up,” Mary Olsen, a Newport Beach resident, told the Register. “Once they die, they just really smell.”

But not far offshore, the critters are still alive and represent a feast for bluefin tuna.

Red crabs can measure about 5 inches. Photo: Dana Wharf Sportfishing

Anglers are venturing out to hook and spear tuna, while photographers are diving in to take advantage of a rare opportunity to photograph these mysterious crustaceans beneath the surface.

To be sure, the images that appear with this post, all used with permission, help shine the light on Pleuroncodes Planipes, a.k.a. red crab and tuna crab.

The red crab invasion began last month in San Diego. Photo: ©Jim Grant

It’s actually a type of squat lobster, and one of the most abundant species of micronekton (actively swimming organisms, larger than plankton), residing in the California Current.

They can measure about 5 inches and represent a food source for not only tuna, but marlin, sharks, yellowtail, and even some whales. Their typical range is from Chile in South America, to Baja California.

They’re not heavily fished commercially, but some of the larger specimens are marketed as langostino. Those that are dying on SoCal beaches, though, seem to be fit only for starving gulls.

–Note: Underwater photos are courtesy of Geoff Glenn Photography. Click on these links to follow him on Facebook and Instagram

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