Dungeness crab

The fishery

Dungeness Crab is one of the most iconic west coast shellfish species. Prized by chefs and seafood lovers, Dungeness Crab has a sweet, succulent taste. With the tender meat and melt-in-your-mouth texture of Dungeness Crab, it is no wonder these invertebrates are one of BC’s most valuable seafood products.

Managed in seven different fishing locations, there are two different Dungeness Crab Associations, the BC Crab Fishermen’s Association that represents the entire coast and the Area A Crab Association that represents the majority of skippers, crew, and licence holders of vessels that harvest Crab commercially in area A, the waters of Haida Gwaii and the Hecate Strait. The Area A Crab Association is a leader in innovative fisheries, with the longest-running self-funded ghost gear retrieval program in North America (over 20 years). Area A was also one of the first fishing fleets to introduce video electronic monitoring into their fishery.

About

Dungeness Crabs range the whole west coast of North America. They are bottom dwellers found in sandy and muddy areas, eating bivalves, fish, and crustaceans. Dungeness Crabs have a hard oval shell, a pair of large claws, and four pairs of legs. They grow by molting (shedding) their shell and growing a new, larger one. The new shell is soft and hardens over two months. They have a light green or purplish brown shell that turns red when cooked.

Separated by sexes, Dungeness Crabs mate in the summer when the female shell is still soft. The fertilized eggs are then extruded from the abdomen of the female crab. They remain there until they hatch in late winter. During this stage of life, females burrow themselves into the sand. Dungeness Crabs live for over 10 years. They can reach a maximum of 230mm in size and weigh up to 4.5 lbs. The shape of the apron, which is located on the crab’s underside, can help differentiate the sexes. The apron of the female Dungeness crab is rounded, while that of males has a long-pointed apron.

The harvest

Dungeness Crabs are commercially harvested along the coast of BC using bait and wire trap gear. Traps are dropped to the seafloor and tagged with uniquely identifying buoys. The fishery is divided into seven crab management areas, each area with specific management rules. These regulations include restrictions on size, gender, and hardness of the shell, seasonal closures, limits to traps, requirements for gear marking, gear size, restrictions on daily fishing time, and haul limits. In most areas, traps are attached to weighted groundlines that are equipped with floating buoys at each end to serve as an identifier, which allows harvesters to locate and retrieve their traps. In Area A, traps are not connected to a groundline, but instead each trap is attached to a line with their own floating buoy.

Commercial Crab traps are equipped with an escape port to allow undersized crabs to escape. The traps have a biodegradable “rot cord” to stop them from fishing if they are lost. Harvesters regularly check their traps to grade and measure their catch and return undersized, soft-shelled, and female Crabs to the sea. Crabs must be at least 165 mm long to be harvested. Undersized crabs are returned alive to the water. On top of the minimum size requirements, the harvesting of female Dungeness Crabs is  prohibited. The male Crabs that are appropriately sized are placed in chilled water circulating on the vessel, which helps maintain their quality.

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Sustainability

The fishery is limited entry with a specific number of eligible licences to commercially harvest Dungeness Crab. There are seven different fishing locations with a limited number of traps designated for each fishing area. Commercial Crab vessels in BC have 100% at-sea monitoring to ensure that harvesters are compliant with the regulations. All boats are fitted with electronic monitoring systems and trap locations are recorded using Radio Frequency Identification tags. The fishery in Area A (Haida Gwaii and Hecate Strait) was the first crab fleet in North America to have 100% video monitoring. Each fishing area has its own contracted third-party service provider that observes data from the electronic monitoring system to ensure that all the regulations are followed. The vessel master is required to have a DFO approved catch validation and harvest Logbook that has been assigned to each Crab licence holder. All Crab vessel masters are responsible for the provision and maintenance of an accurate record of daily harvest operations recording date, time, catch, and fishing location.

Ecotrust Canada and Pacific Coast are two industry-hired services that conduct electronic monitoring and annual stock assessments. The surveys collect data to help the Dungeness crab sector understand how the crab population changes over time. The biological samplers collect information on sex and shell condition. They also record injuries, mate marks, and the size of the crab. There are also strict rules regarding trap limits, gear marking, and gear sizing. Vessel masters are required to keep daily catch logs, which they submit at the end of each month to Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

When

Fishing seasons for the seven Dungeness Crab fishing areas are different based on factors such as water temperature and environmental factors.

Area A- Hecate Strait & Haida Gwaii: July- April
Area B- North & Central Coast: April- December
Area C- West Coast Vancouver Island: Year round
Area G- Johnstone Strait: Year round
Area H- Strait of Georgia: Year round
Area I- Fraser River: June- November
Area J- Boundary Bay: July- November

When

Fishing seasons for the seven Dungeness Crab fishing areas are different based on factors such as water temperature and environmental factors.

Area A- Hecate Strait & Haida Gwaii: July- April
Area B- North & Central Coast: April- December
Area C- West Coast Vancouver Island: Year round
Area G- Johnstone Strait: Year round
Area H- Strait of Georgia: Year round
Area I- Fraser River: June- November
Area J- Boundary Bay: July- November

Where

Dungeness Crabs are found along the entire west coast of North America. Licence holders select their fishing location on a three-year rotation, aside from that selection process, they cannot move from one location to another. Area A is based in the notoriously rough waters of the Hecate Strait and Haida Gwaii. There are 36 vessels and their crew based out of this area, over 60% of BC’s Dungeness Crabs are harvested from the Hecate Strait (Area A)!

The market

Dungeness crab has been a delicacy both domestically and internationally for centuries. Crab prices have steadily risen in recent years, and it has become the most valuable shellfish from BC. Dungeness crabs are exported in many different forms. However, the most valuable and common is whole and alive.

Exporters have developed an extremely specialized system for selling Dungeness Crabs whole and alive to markets around the world. Crab is sold primarily in the United States and China. Transporting Dungeness Crabs requires that oxygen and temperature levels be controlled. Dungeness crabs are available frozen, fresh-cooked, or both. The body meat can also be separated from the body and sold alone. For more information on Dungeness Crab, head over to www.weheartbccrab.ca