Last modified: November 30, 2018

Crustaceans — Crabs & Lobsters

Dungeness Crab

 Subphylum Crustacea (Crustaceans) — Order Decapoda (Crabs, Lobster, Shrimp) — Family Cancridae (Cancer Crabs) — Genus Cancer


Photo ID courtesy of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

Species: Cancer magister (Dana, 1852) Some scientists, based on the shapes of the teeth of the carapace, have called for a new genus name Metacarcinus which would mean a scientific name of Matacarcinus magister. Until clarified, this is the traditional classification.

Alternate Name: Market crab. Its common name comes from the town once called Dungeness in Washington (today it’s called Old Town).

Identification: Dungeness are trapezium-shaped crabs with a wide, long, hard carapace (shell), and five pairs of legs. Unlike most of their cousins, Dungeness have white-tipped pincers on the claws (chelipeds). The top edges of the claws, and the upper pincers have sawtooth-like serrations that contain more than a dozen teeth along each edge. The crabs use these claws for defense and to rip apart their food. They use their smaller appendages  to pass the food particles into their mouth. Once inside the crab’s stomach, food is further digested by a collection of tooth-like structures called the “gastric mill.” The last three joints of the last pair of walking legs have a comb-like fringe of hair on the lower edge, and the joint previous to these has hair on both top and bottom edges, but with a much greater amount on the top edge. In both male and female, the tip of the last segment of the tail flap is rounded (unlike other crabs in this group). The color of the Dungeness is generally light reddish brown to gray on the back (often with light streaks and spots), with a purplish wash anteriorly; the underside is whitish to light orange, the inner and upper sides of the anterior legs with crimson or purple.

Small Dungeness crabs at the B Street Pier in Crescent City

Size: To 9.8 inches across the back for males (most less than 8 inches), females to 6.5 inches.

Range: Bahia Magdelena, Baja California, to Unalaska, Alaska in the Aleutian Islands (some sources say to the Pribilof Islands in Alaska). In California, adults are rarely seen south of Point Conception; most common from Monterey Bay north. As a general rule, the farther north you go the better your chance for netting crabs.

Dungeness crabs at the Pacifica Pier taken by Matt Shockley

Habitat: Recorded from intertidal depths down to 750 feet but are most common on sandy and mud bottoms from 60 to 300 feet deep. Inhabits eelgrass beds in bays. Estuaries are important to their life cycle and they inhabit all such areas between Morro Bay and Puget Sound, Washington. Dungeness are scavengers that will almost anything; their preferences are clams, other crustaceans and small fish.

Dungeness crabs at Pacifica

Piers: Most commonly found on piers that sit over a sand or mud bottom. Most pier-caught Dungeness are taken on piers from Pacifica north. Many rivers along the north coast see an influx of Dungeness during late winter and early spring months, and harbors and bays are active spawning grounds for Dungeness. In these far northern waters Dungeness are common and at times a nuisance. On one of my trips to Eureka nearly every cast saw a crab latch on to the bait. I finally had to switch to artificial lures to keep the crabs off my line. Of course if I had been crabbing (which I wasn’t) I would have had no complaints. Best piers seem to be the Pacifica Pier, Lawson’s Landing Pier (Tomales Bay), almost any pier in Humboldt Bay, and either of the two piers at Crescent City. Although a common catch at piers inside San Francisco Bay, and even into San Pablo Bay, it is illegal to keep Dungeness in these bays.

A Dungeness taken by illcatchanything (Brian Linebarger) at the Fort Baker Pier that sits inside San Francisco Bay. Given the pier’s location, the Dungeness was illegal and was returned to the water.

Shoreline: Almost all sandy-shore beaches north of Half Moon Bay will see Dungeness, as will areas inside of bays from Tomales Bay north.

Boats: An important goal for boaters from Half Moon Bay north. As regulations have changed and made it more difficult to keep some species, i.e., rockfish, many Sportfishing boats in central and northern California have begun to run seasonal combination fish and crab trips.

Bait and Tackle: Traditionally taken with hoop nets but more and more people use crab snares each year.

Crab Snares

Crab snares at the Pacifica Pier

A mix of Dungeness and rock crabs

Crab snare at Pacifica

Crab snare

A Dungeness at Pacifica

Measuring a Dungeness

Keeping them fresh

Hoop Nets — Crab Nets

A crab net (hoop net) at Pacifica

A small Dungeness

Food Value: About one-quarter of the weight of a Dungeness is meat with the bigger the crab the larger the percentage of meat. The flesh has what is considered to be a delicate flavor that is slightly sweet. Live crabs are cooked by dropping them into boiling salt water, waiting for the boil to return, and then cooking for another 15 minutes. The crabs are then placed into cold water and cleaned. Two common tools for removing crabmeat from the shell are a crab cracker and a shrimp fork. Sometimes a cleaver, a mallet or small hammer is used for cracking.

See the following for additional information on cooking crabs:

Dungeness taken at the Pacifica Pier

Comments: Generally considered the most desirable of California crabs. It is also known as the market crab and is familiar to anyone who has visited San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. The crab reaches a good size, yields more meat per crab than most other species, and the meat is firm and delicious.

14 Responses

  1. Is it okay to go crab snaring at Avila and Pismo pier at San Luis Obispo ? If so what length should they be? Thanks in advance.

    1. Is it really illegal to keep Dungeness Crabs from Oyster Point Pier in SSF?

  2. Yes it’s OK. Per the regulations, you can use crab snares (aka “crab loop traps”) north of Point Arguello. They need to be 5 3/4″ across the back, excluding the points (side spikes).

  3. A very accurate, brief and concise report. Thank you!

  4. Is pier or jetty crabbing with snare legal all year round? I was told public piers are ok all year round

  5. No, seasons and size restrictions apply to a pier just like in a boat or onshore. The main difference (since no license is required on a pier) is that you could only use two snares/hoops on a pier. On a beach where you need a license you can have more snares.

  6. Ok. Great to know. I am planning to go to Mendocino to fish 1st week of Aug. I know Dung Crab is closed by then. I wanted to try crabbing of the jetty but will have to cancel the crabbing. Thanks for the info.


  7. I can’t find any information to corroborate the following claim: I was told there is a special period at the start of Dungeness season when you are
    allowed to take Dungeness from inside the bay. I say this is false, but they swear it’s real and they plan on doing exactly that come November 7 2020.
    What do you say Ken Jones?

    1. Totally false, they are never legal inside SF Bay.

  8. At Crescent City crescent city pier is crab season open for this year 2020
    open now

  9. A friend of mine, who is relatively new to the country, went crabbing for rock crab in San Fran bay. He ended up catching a couple of Dungeness crab and of course had no idea that it was illegal to keep them. As you can imagine, as he was packing up for the day, a F&G ranger came around, inspected his catch, and wrote him up for having the Dungeness. He was told by the Ranger that he would have to appear in court, but unfortunately did not provide any details RE: what the fine/sentence could be. His family is extremely worried and is wondering whether he should hire an attorney. They’ve asked me to look into it for him. I do not have a copy of the citation he was issued (yet), so I all I could really do at this point was search online. Although I am quite adept at searching the net for info, after an hour or so I have still been unable to 1) identify the actual law RE: recreational Dungeness crabbing, 2) obtain fee/fine information, etc. All I have been able to confirm is that it is illegal to keep Dungeness crab taken from San Fran Bay. I’ve read the CA Dept of F&W’s 2020-2021 Summary of Recreational Dungeness Crab Seaason. I’ve reviewed and searched the Fish and Game code at I’ve reviewed multiple Regulations from CA F&G Commission. Lastly, I read the section on Dungeness crab in the 2020-2021 California Ocean Sport Fishing Regulations which confirmed “(1) Closure: Dungeness crab may not be taken from or possessed if taken from San Francisco Bay and San Pablo Bay, plus all their tidal bays, sloughs and estuaries between the Golden Gate Bridge and Carquinez Bridge.” Unfortunately, that was pretty much the only useful information in there related to this issue. Seriously, I’m at my wits end. Since the law seems to be specific to San Francisco, I suppose it’s possible that it’s a City ordinance. Anyways, I would REALLY appreciate it if anyone could provide any information RE: the actual law or fines. If you’ve personally or know of someone that had this happen to, I would love to hear about the experience. FYI, my friend has NO priors at all. Not even a parking ticket. So, he is definitely a “first time offender”. I’m hoping that will help the situation, but I’m just not sure.

    Thank you for reading. I really appreciate any help you can provide!

    1. It’s not a city law but a state regulation and there isn’t any way to predict the fine since every judge seems to view these laws differently. Anglers are supposed to know the laws and claiming no knowledge of the law is not a defense. I am not a lawyer but claiming recent residence would probably be the best defense.

  10. Some of the laws on fishing are a bit crabby – can I use a loop snare in the marine park to the west of Mavericks? They say traps are allowed…
    but its not hard to understand that taking dungeness is illegal in the bay. Most public piers have big signposts
    telling you just that. I was caught running a red light by accident one day (hard to see against the sun
    and until then it was 4-way stops all the way. The law, sadly, seems to pick on easy targets.
    So you’re probably going to have to pay the fine and just move on. Life sucks now and then.
    Personally, I think commercial crabbing vessels should be illegal if they care about the species, and
    let you and me catch all we can. You and me arent going to deplete the fishery, but the commercial
    boats dump thousands of dead crab in the bay because they overload the processors. Thats just sick.,

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