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Dungeness crab in live hold
Dungeness crab in live hold
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Commercial Crab Fishery - Dungeness crab
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About the Dungeness crab fishery

Dungeness crab have been landed commercially on the west coast of the United States since 1848 when San Francisco fishermen began the fishery. The current foundation for regulations in the fishery concerning size, sex, and season were established over 100 years ago! Crabbers of the early 1900s were limited to 6 inch and larger male crabs with a closed season in the fall. Flash forward to present day and west coast Dungeness crab landings are stronger than any time in history with the foundation of regulations nearly identical to those in place in 1905. Since the fishery was established, Oregon has consistently been one of the largest producers of Dungeness crab on the west coast.

The Ocean and Columbia River commercial crab fishery is considered the most valuable single species commercial fishery in Oregon, harvesting a long-term average (25 years) of 16 million pounds of crab per season. Since 1995, the fishery has operated under a limited entry permit system which capped the number of vessels allowed to participate. Initially, 465 permits were issued, but that number has dropped to 424 permits. Another measure to control effort in the fishery was the implementation of pot limits in late 2006, which designated the amount of gear each permitted vessel could use (three tiers of 200, 300 or 500 pots). These policies were in part designed to reduce overcapitalization and excess effort in the fishery. Today, an average of 315 permits fish for Dungeness crab each year.

Harvest methods

crab pot
Commercial crab pot retrieved
female dungeness carrying eggs
Female Dungeness crab carrying eggs

Crab pots are used for most all commercial crabbing. They are very similar to those used in the recreational fishery, but these pots are not just simple traps. Pots must conform to construction guidelines that efficiently minimize their impact. See below for the anatomy of a crab pot.

Multiple crab pots are set in rows, each on an individual line. Pots are retrieved using hydraulic “crab blocks” which is essentially a power driven winch. An efficient crew can hoist and re-bait as many as 400 pots per day. Pots are predominantly set between 10 and 50 fathoms (60-300 feet) although Dungeness crab commonly occur from intertidal areas to 200 fathoms (1200 feet). Crabs are stored live in holds on boats that are filled with re-circulating sea water and are delivered every few days to fish processing plants.

Biology of harvest

Fishing seasons are built around the “3 S’s” size, sex and season.

Size: Crabs can be harvested commercially only when they reach a size of 6 ¼” carapace width. This assures that the crab will have at least one year of reproduction, but more often two. Recreational harvest is legal at 5 ¾” carapace width.

Sex: Only male crabs are harvested. All females must be immediately released and are left to reproduce throughout their life span.

Season: The commercial crab season generally starts December 1 when shells have hardened, indicating that they have filled out with firm meat. Testing takes place each year before the season to assure crabs harvested average at least 25% meat content (23% north of Cascade Head). Generally the range of meat content of Dungeness crab is 13-30%, depending on a combination of molt and reproductive timing which relate to environmental factors such as ocean conditions and food availability. The commercial season in the ocean ends by regulation on Aug. 14th each year.

Anatomy of a commercial crab pot

The structure of a crab pot is steel (wrapped in rubber to minimize handling difficulty) and surrounded by a stainless steel mesh. Pots are constructed in a way to facilitate practical use while minimizing their impact.

crab pot anatomy
Anatomy of a commercial crab pot
-Photo by the Oregon State Police-

Line: Line is nylon and is weighted at regular intervals to keep it directed in a straight line.

Bait box: Smaller bait such as clams, herring, or squid is placed inside the bait box which crabs can usually only smell and not feed on. Larger bait or "hanging bait" such as fish carcasses is hung from the middle of the pot.

Marker buoys: Multiple buoys are often used for extra flotation and identification; they are assigned specific “brand” numbers and are often colored with a specific pattern to aid in identification at sea.

Cotton twine: Cotton twine used in commercial crab pots is designed to rot and disintegrate in a period of 45 days. Regulations require a modification of the wire mesh on the top or side of pot, secured with a single strand of 120 thread size untreated cotton, which when removed will create an opening 5 inches in diameter. Other less common alternatives to this set up include using the same twine as a hook strap, and other arrangements with mild steel.

This regulation ensures that lost gear will release trapped crabs and not continue to "ghost fish" once lost.

Zinc: Fisherman install ingots of zinc on their pots to absorb free electrons thus impeding the salt water corrosion on the steel structure of the trap.

Escape ports: All commercial pots are required to have a minimum of 2 escape ports of at least 4 ¼" (inside diameter) on the top or side (upper half only). This regulation is derived from measurement studies on Dungeness crab that show that nearly 100% of crab larger than legal size (6 ¼" across carapace) are less than 4 ¼" from front to back. It thereby allows most sub-legal crab to simply walk out.

Entry port: This is where the crabs come in. It allows an opening large enough to accommodate the largest of Dungeness crab. The entry port is one way, there is a hinge that prevents exit. As in this example, fishermen often paint their entry port to identify their pots when stacked. When used in other crab fisheries, such as box crab which are larger, it often needs to be adjusted.

Lid strap hook: This hook makes opening and closing the pot easy when clearing hoisted pots; it is generally attached with rubber.

Pot tag: Tags are required that identify the owner or the vessel.

Buoy Tags
Buoy tags

Buoy tags

Buoy tags are required as part of the Pot Limit program. Each crab permit is allocated a specific number of buoy tags (200, 300, or 500). Each pot fished must have a buoy tag attached to the main buoy (first set from pot).


Kelly Corbett - Marine Resources Program, Newport
Phone: (541) 867-4741

Troy Buell - Marine Resources Program, Newport
Phone: (541) 867-4741



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