Dungeness Crab: The Envy of the West Coast


Dungeness Crab: The Envy of the West Coast

a pacific northwest favorite

The Dungeness crab. It’s savory. It’s briny. There’s a hint of sweetness. The meat is so tender that it almost falls apart in your fingers. And you can’t get it fresh anywhere but the northern West Coast.

You’ll find countless locals who love it from mid California to Alaska. When you break a Dungeness crab apart, it has more meat than almost any other crab you can find. The Dungeness crab is so well-loved that in 2009 Oregon made it our state crustacean.

Today we’re going to delve these oh-so-delicious crustaceans. We’re looking at:

  • Why they taste so good.
  • Why they look great on our plates.
  • Why Dungeness crabs are important to our planet.
  • How our providers work to make sure they remain sustainable.
  • How Best to Enjoy Your Whole Dungeness Crab

Eat A Crab

Eating a Dungeness crab is a fabulous event. It takes time and effort. It requires making a bit of a mess. When you finally get to that luscious meat, it tastes so much better for all the work. You should always share this experience with friends and loved ones. Sit and visit as you do the work of getting to the meat within your crabs.

You won’t be finishing this meal with clean hands! You’re going to need a touch of leverage and finesse. If you’re looking for a meal to fill up quickly, we’d suggest just about anything else on our menu. There’s just no better meal for interaction than fresh Dungeness crab. Share stories, laugh and build closeness with those at your table while you dine. Create intimacy with that special someone.

Recently, Chef Chris walked us through the best way to pull apart your Dungeness crab. It doesn’t have to be difficult to get to the mouthwatering meat inside. This just might be the best two minutes of your day.

 

Doesn’t that look tasty? There’s just no doing justice to the flavor of fresh Dungeness crab meat with a two-minute video.

Keeping Dungeness Crab Sustainable

The first and most important question on our minds is sustainability. We apply this for the Dungeness crab just as we do the other creatures in its vast ecosystem. Their habitat stretches from the Aleutian Islands Alaska to central California. You can find Dungeness crabs from the beaches to miles out to sea. The Dungeness crab’s natural habitat is immense. We must be careful to protect their population in the entire range they inhabit. Protecting the species is simple enough that with a few pointers and tools. Anyone can learn to fish for crabs and do so in a sustainable way

The Monterey Bay Aquarium categorizes Dungeness Crab as a “Good Alternative.” Fisheries have made many advances to ensure Dungeness crab remains sustainable. Those working in the fisheries catch them with minimal effect on their surrounding habitat.

Each state or province has strict size restrictions for the crabs you can keep or must release. In each of these locations, the size of a Dungeness crab can tell you much about its age.

Size Requirements

  • Oregon & Columbia River: 5 3/4 inches
  • California: 5 3/4 inches
  • Washington: 6 or 6 1/4 inches, depending on location
  • Alaska: 6 1/2 inches
  • British Columbia: 165 mm (that’s roughly 6 1/2 inches)
The underside of a female Dungeness crab, which is very different from that of a male. The female has a bulbous apron, where the male's is more narrow.
A Female Dungeness Crab – Underside

Unlike so many other sea fauna, it’s easy to guess a Dungeness crab’s age according to its size. Using the above criteria, the crabs have had a chance to mate several times and propagate the species.

Without exception, it’s always illegal to harvest female Dungeness crabs (right). There’s no mistaking a female for a male. Whether for sport or commercial fishing, everyone must throw female crabs back to sea.

Dungeness crabs are a wonderful food source. They play a significant role in the Pacific Ocean. They have an unusually long harvest season. We only partner with suppliers who make sure Dungeness crab remains a sustainable food. All our suppliers are careful to take care of the oceans where we source our favorite fare.

Crab Season

You can find fresh Dungeness crab available for nine months of the year. That leaves only three months when Dungeness crabs are not available. Why? That’s when they’re molting.

There are several reasons you would not want to eat a molting or recently molted crab. They’ve expended a lot of energy in the process, and have a meager supply of meat left in their bodies. After they molt, they’re easy prey. They stay hidden, meaning that they’re not out foraging and hunting. This time spent hiding, regenerating and not eating means they’re losing weight. The off-season gives them plenty of time to molt and rebuild their bodies. By December, they can be robust and meaty once again before making a triumphant return to the menu.

Harvesting Dungeness Crab

If you’ve watched Deadliest Catch, fishing for Dungeness crab is usually much less dangerous. Living much closer to land, they prefer sandy sea floor where they can bury themselves and hide. Many people enjoy recreational fishing for Dungeness crab from small boats and shore.

Those fishing for crabs will drop crab pots and nets to the ocean floor with various forms of bait. Often, recreational fishers like to use chicken, as it doesn’t attract many other creatures. The crabs love it. The pots are designed to trap crabs while allowing other sea life to swim through unfettered.

After pulling up the pots, the fishers inspect each crab. They measure them across the shell with a crab gauge. If a crab is too small, that means it’s not old enough and needs to go back into the water. If it’s female, she gets to keep swimming. If a crab’s shell is soft, then it has recently molted and isn’t ready for harvest.

It seems like quite a bit of nuance; in the end, it’s simple. It takes only a few seconds per crab to decide if it’s big enough, if its shell is hard enough, and if it’s male.

Life Cycle of the Dungeness Crab

It all begins when a female Dungeness crab lays eggs – 2.5 million of them. A female Dungeness crab can mate and then fertilize the eggs on her schedule. This can be up to several weeks after her encounter with a male. As she fertilizes the eggs, she attaches them under her abdomen until they hatch.

Dungeness crab zoea
Dungeness Crab Zoea

After hatching, these crab larvae look like a semi-transparent tadpole with a horn. They advance through five zoeal stages, floating through the water, before finally molting. With their first shell, they gain enough weight to sink to the sea floor. Of the eggs first released by their mother, many never make it to adulthood.  

Many young crabs get picked off by a variety of predators, including adult Dungeness crabs. Those that do survive will molt eight to twelve times their first two years. After that, they molt once per year – females in the spring and males in the late summer.

To molt, the crabs will grow a soft exoskeleton within their existing shell. Then, they will fill the new soft shell with water to cause a separation between the two shells. After the split, they will crawl out of the old shell, leaving what appears to be an entire crab body behind. This includes the old legs, mandibles, and gills. During the molting seasons, concerned beachgoers call local rangers to report mass crab deaths.

Dungeness crabs reach maturity at about two years old. Once they do, they mate during the female molting. The circle of life continues.

People once believed that Dungeness crabs foraged for decaying plants and animals. Today, we know quite a bit more about their diet. Dungeness crabs don’t like those food sources. Instead, they prefer to hunt for prey including:

  • clams
  • mussels
  • marine worms
  • scallops
  • small fish
  • other crabs, including juvenile Dungeness crabs

Looking at that list above,  Dungeness crabs have pretty good taste. Okay, so we’re not so interested in the worms. But the rest of it looks great. Many know Dungeness crab for having a hint of sweetness in their meat. The sweetness comes from their favorite food – clams.

Dungeness crabs have an average ten-year lifespan. At their largest, they can measure more than ten inches across their shell.

Let’s Talk More… in person

Interested in learning more about this magnificent creature while also enjoying its flavors? Come in today and order one of your own. Our servers and staff enjoy discussing our food choices, our core values, and our impact on the world.

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Female Dungeness crab Photo by Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (3047_female_dungeness_crab_munsel_odfw) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Dungeness crab zoea image by Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife http://www.dfw.state.or.us/mrp/shellfish/crab/lifehistory.asp