Dungeness Crab: The Undisputed King of Northern California Crustaceans

people holding crab
Trapping Dungeness crab is a northern California tradition

California’s Dungeness crab sport fishery opens statewide on Saturday, Nov. 1. Every year at this time, recreational crabbers set out in boats or go to public piers and jetties in pursuit of one of northern California’s most popular types of seafood.

Unlike rock crab species that are fished along rocky reefs, Dungeness crab are usually found on sandy or sand-mud bottoms. Dungeness crab generally prefer cooler northern and central California waters and are uncommon south of Point Conception. They are usually found at depths of less than 300 feet, although they can be found in almost any sea floor habitat, and have been found as deep as 750 feet.

“Dungeness crab catches tend to be cyclic with several years of high crab numbers followed by a few years of lower catches. Recent seasons have been characterized by high Dungeness crab production, so we may begin to see more average catches in the near future,” said California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Environmental Scientist Christy Juhasz.

crab in trap
Dungeness crab in trap, or “pot”

The most popular methods for catching Dungeness crab are with crab traps (pots), loop traps and hoop nets. Dungeness crab traps and nets may not be set before 12:01 a.m. on Nov. 1. Any number of pots or nets can be fished recreationally, except when fishing from a public fishing pier where only two fishing appliances may be used per person.

Crabbers do not need a sport fishing license to set their pots, traps or nets from public piers (see California Code of Regulations Title 14, Section 1.88 in the Ocean Sport Fishing regulations booklet for the definition of “public pier”).  CDFW reminds sport crabbers that anyone who is not fishing from a public pier or jetty must possess a valid sport fishing license.

Recreational crabbers must have a gauge or other measuring device at hand that can accurately measure crab. Crabbers may keep up to 10 Dungeness crabs per day of either sex, as long as they measure at least five and three-quarter inches across the shell, directly in front of and excluding the lateral spines. There is one exception to this rule — only six Dungeness crab may be taken per day from party boats south of Mendocino County, and those crab must measure at least six inches across. A measurement diagram is available on the CDFW Marine Region website.

Dungeness crab
Dungeness crab

No one may take or possess more than one daily bag limit, and no Dungeness crab may be taken from San Francisco or San Pablo bays, which are important crab nursery areas.

For those fishing with hoop nets, remember that regulations require raising the nets to the surface to inspect the contents at least every two hours. Any undersized crabs or other species that are accidentally caught can then be released more quickly. This regulation ensures that fishermen closely monitor their gear and do not lose any equipment. Trap fishermen should also closely monitor their traps, because lost trap gear can continue to fish and become a self-baiting crab killer.

For more information regarding recreational Dungeness crab fishing regulations and other crab species, please visit the CDFW Invertebrate Management Project website.

post by Christy Juhasz, CDFW Environmental Scientist  ♦  Photos – Upper: photo by T. Klassen, Middle: photo by J. Newman, Lower: CDFW photo by C. Juhasz