Subphylum Crustacea (Crustaceans) — Order Decapoda
Crabs — Family Cancridae (Cancer Crabs)
••••••••••••••••••••••••••••• Dungeness Crab ••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••
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 we will use the traditional classification.
Identification: Dungeness crabs have 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 its 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.
Photo ID courtesy of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife
Size: To 9.8 inches across the back for males (most less than 8 inches), females to 6.5 inches.
Range: Bahía 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.
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.
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 into their estuary areas 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 (if you’re an angler concentrating on fish). 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.
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 combination fish and crab trips.
Bait and Tackle: Traditionally taken with hoop nets but more and more people use crab snares each year.
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, mallet or small hammer is used for cracking.
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.
A Dungeness taken by illcatchanything (Brian Linebarger) at the Fort Baker Pier. Since Dungeness are illegal in San Francisco Bay (all waters inside the Golden Gate), this “Dungie” was returned to the water to grow and perhaps be caught another day.
••••••••••••••••••••• Slender Crab or Graceful Crab ••••••••••••••••••••••••
Alternate Name: Graceful rock crab.
Identification: The slender crab has a very broad and oval-shaped shell with dull tooth-like protrusions toward the front of the shell and slender walking legs. They, and Dungeness crabs, are the only two members of this group of crabs whose chelae (claws) are white tipped. The tops of the claws are sharp-edged, with two or three prominent teeth, but these edges are not the saw tooth-like serrations seen in Dungeness. Female crabs can be distinguished from males by the broad tail flap on their undersides, which are used for protecting their eggs when they are gravid. Due to their relatively small size, slender crabs are frequently mistaken for juvenile Dungeness crabs. They can be distinguished from Dungeness by their (almost always) hairless legs; Dungeness have hair on the posterior three legs. In addition, in the slender crab the last segment of its tail flap is pointed, where that of Dungeness is curved. The slender crab usually has a shell that is olive brown and legs that vary from yellowish brown to purple. The underside is white or yellowish white.
Size: Small, males to 4.5 inches across the back, females to 3.4 inches.
Range: Bahía Playa Maria, Baja California, to Prince William Sound, Alaska. Most commonly seen in central California.
Habitat: Recorded from intertidal depths down to 570 feet but primarily found in shallow inshore environments—sandy and muddy bottoms, eelgrass beds and kelp beds. They do not tolerate low salinity brackish environments as well as some species and are usually not found in estuaries (although seasonally found in sloughs and bays).
Piers: Occasionally taken from piers, especially those between Avila and Sonoma County.
Shoreline: Occasionally taken by people seeking out Dungeness and often mistakenly discarded as undersized Dungeness.
Boats: Rarely taken from boats.
Bait and Tackle: Hoop nets and crab snares.
Food Value: Although taken by recreational anglers they are generally small and do not yield an abundance of meat.
Comments: Due to their fairly small size it’s best just to release them.
•••••••••••••••••••••• Yellow Crab or Yellow Rock Crab •••••••••••••••••••••
Species: Cancer anthonyi, (Rathbun, 1897). (Alternate Metacarcinus anthonyi). The name honors Alfred Webster Anthony, a naturalist working in San Diego.
Alternate Names: Yellow crab and yellow rock crab.
Identification: Yellow crabs have an oval-shaped, fairly broad and hard shell. Yellow crabs are noted for large black-tipped pincers on the claws with the claws large and smooth resembling those of rock crabs. However, they can be distinguished from rock crabs by their lack of red spotting on the underside. Coloring is yellow or yellowish-brown above with a purple wash anteriorly and on the legs (some specimens). The underneath is plain yellow or yellowish-white. The juvenile crabs tend to be darker than the adults.
Size: Males to 6.9 inches across the back, females to 5.6 inches.
Habitat: Recorded from intertidal depths down to 430 feet but primarily found on sandy habitat between 60 to 180 feet. In the north, where many of the benthic areas are rocky, they are more commonly found in bays, sloughs and estuaries.
Piers: Not really a common species from piers since they tend to be caught in deeper waters. Nevertheless, they are the main “rock crabs” taken from SoCal piers. Best bets: Santa Monica Pier and Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara.
Shoreline: Few adult yellow crabs are caught in shallow, inshore waters.
Boats: A moderate goal of southern California boaters.
Bait and Tackle: Hoop nets and crab snares.
Food Value: Excellent. Most food is found in the claws and legs but its delicate and sweet.
Yellow crabs taken from the Santa Monica Pier by Mahigeer (Hashem Nahid)
Comments: Yellow crabs are the most abundant crab landed in southern California, 70-95% of the total commercial crab catch.
•••••••••••••••••••••• Red Crab or Red Rock Crab ••••••••••••••••••••••••
Species: Cancer productus (Randall, 1839).
Alternate Names: Red crab or red rock crab.
Identification: Red crabs have a wide, hard shell with large, black-tipped pincers on the claws. The hands of the claws are rough, particularly above, but not saw-toothed as in the Dungeness crab. They are identified by their large broad tail flaps (although the tip of the last segment of the tail flap is pointed in both male and female). Adult red crabs are generally brick red above with an underside that is yellowish white with orange-red blotching’s. Young crabs may show many different color patterns including white, and some show up with spots or stripes. The tail flap in the female has a great deal of red, as does the tail flap of the female rock crab. The red blotching’s on the underside of the red crab are not to be confused with the distinct red spots found on the underside of the rock crab.
Size: Males to 7.8 inches across the back, females to 6.2 inches.
Range: Isla San Martin, Baja California to Kodiak Island, Alaska
Habitat: Although recorded from the low intertidal zone down to a depth of 300 feet, primarily lives in shallow inshore environments on rocky substrate—rocky reefs, boulder-strewn beaches, and gravel beds (they cannot live on bottoms of mud or pure sand). They do not tolerate low salinity as well as some crabs and thus are not seen in estuaries as often as some species. Red crabs are carnivorous and will eat almost anything including barnacles, small crabs, and dead fish. Apparently one of their favorite foods are green crabs, which is good since green crabs are an invasive species that should be eliminated. Rarely are the two species found in the same estuary habitats.
Piers: Found at piers located in rocky areas, primarily those from Santa Barbara north. A considerable number of these crabs are taken at rocky-area piers in San Francisco Bay, Tomales Bay, Bodega Bay, and Humboldt Bay. They are taken at Trinidad Pier north of Eureka and around Citizen’s Dock in Crescent City; they are the main “rock crabs” taken in northern California. Although it would seem to be a natural area, I have seen few of these caught at the Point Arena Pier.
Shoreline: A commonly encountered crab while fishing in rocky areas of the central and northern coast but rarely sought out by anglers due to the difficulty of using crab hoops and snares in such areas.
Boats: Available to boaters in rocky areas but generally they take a backseat to those seeking out Dungeness crabs.
Bait and Tackle: Hoop nets and crab snares.
Food Value: Although sport fishermen are able to catch large numbers of these crabs, commercial fishermen land few. Red crabs yield a lower amount of flesh than Dungeness (almost all is found in the claws and legs) but the meat has a slightly sweet, delicate flavor that is delicious.
Comments: Together with rock crabs they make up the majority of crabs caught by sportsmen. Red crabs are larger but less numerous than rock crabs.
••••••••••••• Rock Crab, Brown Rock Crab or Pacific Rock Crab ••••••••••••••
Species: Cancer antennarium (Stimpson, 1856). (Alternate proposed name Romaleon antennarium). Antennarium — Latin for “antennae” in reference to the large antennae, larger than those of other species in the family.
Alternate Names: Pacific rock crab, California rock crab, brown rock crab or just plain rock crab.
Identification: Rock crabs have a wide, hard shell with black-tipped pincers on claws that are large and smooth. Legs are “hairy” and they have distinctive long antennae between the eyestalks that are the longest of the various species. The tip of the last segment of the tail flap is pointed in both male and female. The coloring is generally medium to dark red-brown or orange, usually mottled with a lighter grayish tinge. The undersides are yellowish white with a number of small distinct red spots that help distinguish this species since they are not seen on the other species. In the female, the red spots on the tail flap are usually blocked out by a general red coloration, but the spots can be found on the legs and the underside of the shell. Red crabs have red blotching’s on the underside but not the distinct spots seen in rock crabs.
Size: Males to 7 inches across the back, females to 5.8 inches.
Range: Cabo San Lucas, Baja California, to Virago Sound, Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia. Most abundant from Mexico to the San Francisco Bay area and numerically probably the number one “rock crab” in central California..
Habitat: Although recorded from the low intertidal zone down to a depth of 330 feet, they primarily live in shallow inshore environments—on sand, mud, gravel, and rock substrata in estuarine and coastal shelf areas. Rock crabs do not tolerate brackish conditions as well as some other crabs. Rock crabs feed by means of both scavenging and predation with a large diet that consists of bivalves, snails and echinoderms, as well as other crustaceans such as hermit crabs. Sensitivity to the odor of food serves as a major means of locating food. Many of the small rock crabs seen snapping and seemingly blowing bubbles, in tidepools and around rocks, will be small members of this species.
Piers: Found at most piers from Avila north to Sonoma County. Best bets: Port San Luis Pier, Santa Cruz Wharf, Fort Point Pier, San Francisco Municipal Pier, Fort Baker Pier, Lawson’s Landing Pier, and several piers in Tomales Bay and Bodega Harbor. Although very common to piers in Morro Bay, and a long time sport for local anglers, crabs (or any other invertebrates) may no longer be taken due to the Morro Bay State Marine Recreational Management Area closure.
Shoreline: Readily available inshore but the rocky areas they typically inhabit make it hard to use both hoops and snares.
Boats: Available to boaters in rocky areas but generally they take a backseat to those seeking out Dungeness crabs.
Bait and Tackle: Hoop nets and crab snares.
Food Value: Although sport fishermen are able to catch large numbers of these crabs, commercial fishermen land few. Rock crabs yield a lower amount of flesh than Dungeness (almost all is found in the claws and legs) but the meat has a slightly sweet, delicate flavor that is delicious and favored over Dungeness by many.
Comments: Since Dungeness crabs and red crabs reach the largest size, and yield the most meat, they are the preferred species. However, rock crabs are the most numerous crab caught by pier anglers in central California. Note: the proposed species name is Romaleon not Romulan, these crabs did not come from the planet Romulus nor are they related to Vulcans.
Crabs— Superfamily Majoidea (Spider Crabs)
••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••• Sheep Crab ••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••
Species: Loxorhynchus grandis, (Stimpson, 1857): Loxorhynchus (bent nose) grandis (large).
Alternate Name: Spider crab and California king crab.
Identification: Sheep crabs have a large, hard oval-shaped carapace (shell) that tapers down to spine-like points on its bent snout. All kinds of bumps (tubercles) cover its body along with a variety of growth. As juveniles, sheep crabs camouflage themselves with barnacles, sponges, hydroids and algae; adult sheep crabs are a little more refined and often have a film of green algae on the shells. Some speculate that the name sheep crab comes from the wool-like covering of algae. The crab has eight long legs and two claws.
Size: Males to 10.7 inches or more across the back, females to 4.5 inches.
Range: Cape Thurloe, Baja California, to Cordell Bank (west of Point Reyes), Marin County, California. Sheepies are most abundant in southern California.
Habitat: Recorded from the low intertidal zone down to a depth of 410 feet with favorite haunts including haunts and pier pilings. Males spend the winter months in deep water while males and females migrate to shallower water in the spring. Like most crabs, they are scavengers that feed on almost anything they can find including starfish, clams and octopus.
Piers: Common to most southern California piers. Best bets: Newport Pier, Balboa Pier, Redondo Beach Pier, Santa Monica Pier, Port Hueneme Pier, Stearns Wharf, and the Santa Cruz Wharf.
Shoreline: Rarely taken by shoreline anglers.
Boats: Taken in shallow, sandy-bottom areas 30-70 feet deep in the spring and summer; deeper water 120-240 feet in the winter.
Bait and Tackle: Hoop nets.
Food Value: Surprisingly delicate flavor and firm texture from the meat in both the body and the legs. However, it’s somewhat of a task to clean the heavy, thick shells of sheep crabs. Sheep crab became an important commercial species in the 1980s but when gill and trammel nets were banned in 1990, the commercial catch plummeted.
Comments: One of the earliest lessons I learned when fishing at the Newport Pier was that we don’t always catch what we think we are going to catch. Not only was this true regarding fish but also in relation to a number of other strange and unusual creatures. One of the most common catches at Newport was the ugly and often fairly large spider crabs (at least they were called that by most fisherman). Although no one, to my knowledge, actually crabbed for them with nets, most days would see a few of the long-legged beasts grab hold of bottom baits intended for fish. The majority of anglers would be perplexed with the heavy but not exactly fighting weight on their line, and then watch in disgust as the creature let go of the bait halfway up to the pier’s surface. Sometimes the crab made it up to the pier and people would rush over to see the “gnarly” looking creature (whose shell would sometimes be covered with barnacles, sponges, hydroids, algae and other growth, including anemones). I’m not sure how many people actually took them home to eat (although the large crabs are delicious), but their catch spiced up the action and provided conversation for those who had never seen the creatures before.
Sheep crab from the Balboa Pier
Do spider crabs and stingrays hang out together (it would make an interesting bar scene in an aquatic version of Star Wars)? That unusual question arose one early summer day in 1996. I had been fishing out at the end of the Redondo Sportfishing Pier for some bonito and mackerel but unfortunately those fish were not cooperating and I eventually decided to try on the bottom. There, I soon began to catch what seemed to be a seemingly numberless assemblage of small speckled sanddab. Next to me set a guy who was crabbing and he had three buckets full of large spider crabs. On one drop to the bottom I hooked something heavy and as I pulled it up realized it must be one of the crabs. Sure enough, it was, but it wasn’t really hooked. Mr. Spider Crab had grabbed hold of a sanddab on my hook and didn’t want to let go. Following about two to three feet behind the crab was a large round stingray. Halfway to the surface of the pier the crab released its pincer-hold on the fish, and the crab, together with his companion, the stingray, drifted slowly out of sight. I had seen a similar occurrence a few years ago at the Port Hueneme Pier. Did the spider crabs and stingrays have a thing going, were the stingrays just nosy, or was a form of symbiosis taking place between these two quite different species? Unfortunately, I do not have an adequate explanation for these soul-searching questions.
•••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••• Kelp Crab •••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••••
Species: Pugettia producta, (Stimpson, 1857); Pugettia (Puget Sound) producta (product of).
Alternate Name: Shield-back crab, northern kelp crab, northern lame crab, and spider crab. Called spider crabs due to their long legs and small body although they have ten legs unlike spiders that only have eight legs.
Identification: A reason for one alternative name, shield-back crab, is that the carapace (upper shell) is shaped much like a five-pointed shield or badge (one resource describes it as like an upside down shovel) that is roughly squarish-shaped but longer than wide and with a pointed front. The entire shell is almost smooth. The legs are long, smooth and end in sharp points. Coloring depends primarily on the type of food they’ve been eating and they are primarily nocturnal vegetarians (herbivores) whose favorite food is, no surprise, kelp! Thus if eating green-colored kelp they tend to be green. If eating red-colored kelp they tend to be red. Given their diverse environments, anglers may encounter a plethora, almost kaleidoscope of colors. The dorsal (back) color can range from yellow-green to greenish-brown to brown to maroon or red. The ventral (underside) color is usually red, yellow, or reddish orange. Young crabs are brown, red, or olive green. Living among kelp, and eating kelp that helps them have the color of that kelp, provides a natural camouflage and protection against predators.
Size: Males reach 4.3 inches across the back, females 3.5 inches across the back.
Range: Punta Asunción, Baja California Sur to Bertha Bay, Chichagof Island, Alaska.
Habitat: Typically found in rocky intertidal areas, kelp beds and around structure such as pier pilings. In the fall the adults move to deeper water where they congregate, feed, and mate. Found to a depth of 240 feet. Young crabs are often in the low intertidal areas of algae and eelgrass and are sometimes found under rocks and other objects at low tide. Although kelp is their favorite food (especially bull kelp, sea cabbage and rockweed) those kelps can diminish during the winter months. At such times they will cheat on their vegetarian diets and eat such meats as barnacles, mussels, hydroids, and bryozoans. In turn, other species like to feed upon them. These include birds, other crabs, fish, octopuses, pinnipeds (seals and sea lions), and otters.
Piers: Occasionally seen at most piers from Santa Barbara north. Best bets: Stearns Wharf (Santa Barbara), Goleta Pier, Morro Bay T-Piers, Port San Luis Pier, Monterey Coast Guard Pier, San Francisco Municipal Pier, Fort Baker Pier, Point Arena Pier, Trinidad Pier, and Citizens Dock (Crescent City).
Shoreline: Occasionally taken by shoreline anglers.
Boats: Occasionally taken by boaters fishing around shallow-water kelp beds.
Bait and Tackle: Taken incidentally on both fishing line and in hoop nets.
Food Value: Some claim the meat in the claws is both plentiful and sweet tasting.
Comments: Kelp crabs seem to be the black sheep of their family. Members of the Family Epialtida fall into a group called masking crabs (see sheep crab above) and like to attach pieces of algae, kelp, and small shells to hook-like structures on their back and legs. They use this for camouflage, masking themselves against predators. However, kelp crabs rarely do this. They are larger and relatively more active than their cousins and need to keep a clean shell for smoother movement through their intertidal environment (Ricketts et al. 1985). They will however still attach small pieces of kelp to the hook-like structures on their backs. Instead of using the kelp as a mask, they save the kelp as food to be later eaten. A note of caution: although the legs look slender and harmless, the claws are very strong and adept at both grabbing and pinching a careless victim. So, be careful!
••••••••• Some Tips On Crabs ••••••••••
* All of these crabs should be kept alive as long as possible. Most anglers use a bucket of water or a wet gunnysack to keep the crabs fresh until it is time to go home. It is a good idea to tie up the pincers so they do not fight each other while they are enclosed together.
A Goleta Pier crab — Neil, Eric and Brandy Acker
*For most crabs wintertime is the time to go crabbing. As crabs grow they must molt or shed their hard shells. This typically happens during the warm summer months and during this time their body is full of water and the chemicals needed to harden their new shells; the result is soft and unappealing meat. Once the new shell hardens, the texture becomes firmer, and the meat is much better tasting. In addition, the deeper water species are really only common inshore during the winter months, November or December through March—with the exception of far-northern waters.
••••••••• Some Odds and Ends ••••••••••
Southern kelp crab aka globose kelp crab (Taliepus nutalli) from the San Clemente Pier (missing part of a leg)
I did not initially know what this creature was. Thus the label “weird crab.” But then I received a note from a friend who is a marine biologist and the crab was identified as a decorator crab Oregonia gracilis Dana, 1851, Graceful Decorator Crab
However, I then received a second note from marine biologist Gregory Jensen who said the “mystery crab is a juvenile Loxorhynchus, not Oregonia. Probably the moss crab, L. crispatus.” His views were seconded by another teacher of marine biology specializing in crabs, Nin Gan, so we are going to go with the identification as a juvenile Loxorhynchus crispatus. It shows once again how hard it can be to identify a species based just on pictures.
Mr. Jensen by the way is considered an expert on crabs and the author of books on the same.
Crab taken at the Elephant Rock Pier by gdawg
Dinner from the Fort Baker Pier
Many thanks to Ed Roberts and Paul Gregory (retired) of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Gregory Jensen of the University of Washington, and Nin Gan of Saddleback College for their invaluable help with the identification of these crabs. Good thing because I am a fisherman, not a crabber.
I also want to give a big thanks to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife for their help and willingness to share information and resources including the “Crab ID” pictures.
Catching Dungeness Crabs at Brookings Harbor, Oregon, just four miles from the California state line.
#1 — Using a net
#2 — Using a rod and reel with a crab trap