Dungeness crab is available fresh and frozen as whole cooks, sections, clusters, and picked meat, as well as live. Buyers say the best times to purchase are in December and January when landings are high, but prices can fluctuate dramatically due to Pacific storms. Buyers caution that in some years crab processed in early December will have lower meat yields because they haven’t filled out after molting and as such crab landed in January tend to have higher meat yields. Most of the crab meat marketed as fresh from March through November is meat picked from frozen crab sections put up in December and January. Live suppliers usually allow for 5% dead loss, which should be taken into account when determining the price. When buying live crabs make sure they are active and responsive; fresh crabs should be clean and moist with parts intact, a bright orange-red shell, and no unpleasant smell. Ideally combo meat packs will have 55% leg and claw meat, although buyers say that 50% is more common. Whole crab are graded 1.5-2lbs., 2-2.5lbs., 2.5-3lbs., and 3 ups.
Key sustainability notes for Dungeness crab from landings averaged from 2012-2014:
~100% of U.S. landings get a "Good Alternative (yellow)" rating
Breakdown of the landings are: California ~35%, Washington ~30%, Oregon ~20%, British Columbia ~10%, and Alaska ~5%
Landings from 2012 to 2014 fluctuated dramatically. Landings in 2013 were ~40% higher than in 2012 and ~33% higher than 2014. Comparing landings from 2014 to 2013, landings were up ~100% in Alaska and ~25% in British Columbia, and down ~40% across the U.S. West Coast.
Dungeness crab can live 10+ years with females reaching sexual maturity at 2 years and males at 3 years. Female crabs molt between May and August and mating occurs immediately after this molting period. The molting period is later in the season the farther north the crab are found. Mating usually occurs in inshore waters and females move to deeper waters to hatch eggs in late winter.
Dungeness crab is a decapod and consumes bivalves, crustaceans, marine worms, and fish. Predators of the Dungeness crab include octopus, halibut, dogfish, sculpins, rockfish, and birds. Male Dungeness crab reach minimum harvest size around age 4. Adult crab can reach a width of 10" (although 7" is more common), are reddish-brown in color, with short, thick legs.
Dungness crab range from Point Conception, California to the Eastern Aleutian Islands in Alaska. The crab prefer a sandy substrate, but are also found on mud and gravel. Dungeness crab are often buried just below the sand or in vegetation such as eelgrass beds. Dungness crab are found at depths from the intertidal range to 230m deep (but usually <90m).
Science & Management
Currently, Alaska does not have stock assessments for Dungeness crab and there is unknown if stocks that are fished are genetically distinct from stocks that are not fished. Some data is collected via fish ticket reporting and dockside sampling, although the sampling is not comprehensive. Stock assessments for Dungeness crab on the U.S. West Coast are not conducted and annual landings are used as a proxy for stock abundance. Shell hardness tests are done in the pre-season, and there is data collection from logbooks in Washington. British Columbia has limited stock assessments (twice a year in 2 of the 7 fishing areas) from pot surveys. Data collection is also achieved through electronic monitoring, harvest logs, and biological sampling. Annual fluctuations have been identified in British Columbia and attributed to environmental conditions. While landings information helps inform populations of males, since only males are harvested, there is an absence of information regarding females and population size structure.
Dungeness crab are fished using circular baited pots that are 3-4' wide and weigh 60-80 pounds. Most crab are caught in depths of 30-300 feet. In the U.S., Dungeness crab are managed at the state level. U.S. states use a “3-S strategy” – size, sex, and season. In Alaska, management of fishery openings and closures vary by regions within the state. Because some regions can be open to fishing during molting season there are concerns about removal of males before mating season and concerns of possible impacts on long-term sustainability. Alaska maintains regional closures where stocks have collapsed. California and Washington are limited entry fisheries with pot limits and gear requirements for size and escape mechanisms. Dungeness crab in British Columbia are managed at the national level and several management measures are used including size, sex, and hardness restrictions. There are also regulations on licensing, gear requirements, and soak times. British Columbia will also implement in-season closures when observations of soft shells is identified.
Dungeness crab are found throughout the Northeast Pacific in Washington, Oregon, California, British Columbia, and Alaska. Dungeness crab have low inherent vulnerability to fishing pressure due to characteristics like high fecundity and a relatively short lifespan, according to Seafood Watch. Their abundance fluctuates cyclically, likely due to environmental conditions. Their stock abundance is uncertain, Seafood Watch reported. British Columbia has a regionally limited stock assessment for the crab, and the U.S. lacks a formal independent stock assessment program. Despite that, data from landings appear to show that the stocks are not overfished.
Habitat impacts (Wild)
Dungeness crab are usually caught in steel traps called pots that have built-in exits to allow undersized crabs to escape. They also have biodegradable webs to prevent ghost fishing should the pot get lost. The gear to catch Dungeness crab is intended to sit in place on sand and mud habitats so impacts on the seafloor are minimal.
The pots used in the Dungeness crab fisheries allow fishermen to release unintended bycatch easily, usually without harming them. Gear interactions between humpback and gray whales have been known in some California, Oregon and Washington fisheries, Seafood Watch noted. While those entanglements are rare, endangered species can only withstand minimal mortalities from fishing activities, the 2015 report cautioned.
Dungeness crab are managed by Fisheries and Oceans Canada in British Columbia. In the United States, they are managed by the California and Washington Departments of Fish and Wildlife, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Management measures include a permitting system, limits on pots and the target of legal sized males. There are also harvest closures during peak molting. Seafood Watch called the harvest strategy management moderately effective for British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California. However, a 2015 report noted that management improvements are needed in Alaska to help some depleted Dungeness crab populations recover.