California Crabs —

Crabs — Family Cancridae

Genus Metacarcinus

(Several crabs formerly included in genus Cancer)

Dungeness Crab

A Dungeness from the Pacifica Pier

 Species: Metacarcinus magister, formerly Cancer magister (Dana, 1852).

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

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.

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. 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 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.

Dungeness crabs at the Pacifica Pier

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.

A crab snare at the Pacifica Pier

Snares ready to go at Pacifica

A Dungeness caught on a snare at Pacifica

Measuring the 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, mallet or small hammer is used for cracking.

A crab net (hoop net) at Pacifica

The crab

Keepin’ them fresh

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 from the B Street Pier in Crescent City

Crab net and smallish-sized Dungeness from the B Street Pier in Crescent City

Catching Dungeness in Oregon (Brookings Harbor Pier)

#1 — Using a rod and reel with a crab trap

#2 — Using a net

Dungeness Crabs but all too small

 Slender Crab

Species: Metacarcinus gracilis  (Dana, 1852). 

Alternate Name: Graceful crab, 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 discarded as undersized Dungeness.

Boats: Rarely taken from boats.

Bait and Tackle: Hoop nets and crab snares.

Hoop net — Goleta Pier

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

Some yellow crabs from the Santa Monica Pier

Species: Metacarcinus anthonyi, formerly Cancer anthonyi, (Rathbun, 1897).   The name honors Alfred Webster Anthony, a naturalist working in San Diego.

Alternate Name: None that I know of.

A big crab from the Hermosa Beach Pier

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.

Range: Bahía Magdelena, Baja California, to Humboldt Bay in Northern California, but uncommon north of Point Conception.

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, a few are 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.

Comments: Yellow crabs are the most abundant crab landed in southern California, 70-95% of the total commercial crab catch.

 Genus Cancer

 Red Crab

A red crab from Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara

 Species: Cancer productus (Randall, 1839).

Alternate Name: 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.

A red crab from the Fort Point Pier in San Francisco

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.

Piers: Found at piers located in rocky areas, primarily those from Santa Barbara north. A considerable number of these crabs are taken at piers in San Francisco Bay, at Trinidad Pier north of Eureka, and around Citizen’s Dock in Crescent City. 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.

Genus Romaleon

Rock Crab

Rock crab — Lawson’s Landing Pier

Even dogs find crabs to be interesting — Lawson’s Landing

Species: Romaleon antennarium, formerly Cancer antennarium (Stimpson, 1856).

Alternate Name: Pacific rock crab, California rock crab or brown rock crab.

Identification: Rock crabs have a wide, hard shell with black-tipped pincers on claws that are large and smooth. Distinctive are the antennae that begin between the eyestalks and are the longest of these 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.

A crab taken from the Del Norte Street Pier in Eureka

Size: Males to 7 inches across the back, females to 5.8 inches.

Range: Cabo San Lucas, Baja California, to Queen Charlotte Sound, British Columbia (though some sources say Sequim, Washington). Most abundant from Mexico to the San Francisco Bay area.

Habitat: Although recorded from the low intertidal zone down to a depth of 330 feet, primarily lives 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 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. Common to piers in Morro Bay but no longer legal due to MLPA 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.

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 and are the number one type of crab caught by pier anglers.

Crabs—Family Epialtidae

Genus Loxorhynchus

 Sheep Crab

Eric and a sheep crab (spider crab) from the Redondo Beach Pier

 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 9.6 inches or more across the back, females to 6.8 inches.

Range: Cape Thurloe, Baja California, to Cordell Bank, Marin County, California. Sheepies are most abundant in southern California.

Mike Katz and a sheep crab (spider crab) from Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara

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.

A small sheep crab (spider crab) from Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara

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.

Spider crabs (sheep crabs) — Fort Baker Pier

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.

A nice crab taken at the Ocean Beach Pier in San Diego

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.

* Be sure to check current Fish and Game regulations before you go “crabbing.” Minimum size restrictions, open waters, approved seasons, and legal bag limits will all be explained.




 Some other California crabs —

California king crab (?) — Goleta Pier

Kelp crabSan Clemente Pier

Kelp Crab, Pugettia producta, from Citizens Dock in Crescent City (top view—above, bottom view—below)

Weird crab (young sheep crab?) — Seal Beach Pier

In a note from marine biologist Paul Gregory, this crab was identified as a decorator crab
Oregonia gracilis Dana, 1851, Graceful Decorator Crab

Young spider crabs (sheep crabs) — Goleta Pier

Sea Star eating a crab — Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara

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9 Responses to California Crabs —

  1. john mahin says:

    great information, thankyou

  2. Thanks, Ken! Time to go hooping!!

  3. Adam says:

    Hi Ken -

    Trying to track down information on a crab I just bought at the farmer’s market in San Diego. The vendor calls this a racer crab – but I can not find any information on a racer crab. See blog post link here (has a picture):

    Any chance you know what this crab is really called?


  4. Siobhan says:

    I plan parties and excursions at a luxury senior retirement community in Palo Alto. We are planning a crab event here at our community mid October celebrating everything crabs!
    Do you or do you know of anyone who could have a crab tasting station and/or an instructional booth for our residents to learn and enjoy crabs?

    Any information you could provide would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you,

  5. Paul Gregory says:

    Your weird crab is a decorator crab:
    Oregonia gracilis Dana, 1851
    Graceful Decorator Crab

    The racer crab is:
    Platymera gaudichaudii

    • kenjones says:

      Thanks Paul, I appreciate the help. For those who do not know, Paul is a retired marine biologist who worked for the California Department of Fish and Game.

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