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Dungeness Crabs © Fred Benenson/Flickr
Dungeness Crabs © Fred Benenson/Flickr

Everything You Need To Know About Dungeness Crab In San Francisco

Picture of Madelyn Andree
Updated: 30 November 2016
One of San Francisco’s most beloved seafood staples, Dungeness crab, has finally been approved for commercial harvesting. Read up about the most popular seafood on the West Coast before finally digging in.


Dungeness crab is only freshly available on the West Cost

So, chow down while you can! Dungeness crabs are native to the entire coast, from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska to south of San Francisco in Santa Barbara, and even as far as Mexico. They are most prevalent in the waters of northern California, Oregon, and Washington. While it is entirely possible to have Dungeness crab shipped to your doorstep, nothing beats the crab on Fisherman’s Wharf, straight from the ocean.


Dungeness crab at fisherman’s wharf © Jon Sullivan/WikiCommons

Dungeness crabs have been commercially harvested for over 100 years

The crabs were named after a fishing village called Dungeness in Washington after being discovered in the 1880s by European settlers. They quickly became popular along the entire coast and are the largest edible crab in the area. Dungeness crabs are widely considered one of the best seafoods due to their generally sweeter taste, tender flesh and lack of ocean scent.


Dungeness Crab © Fred Benenson/Flickr

Half of California’s Dungeness crab comes from San Francisco

San Francisco’s fishing industry, which also includes salmon and herring, generates $2.35 million for the port each year, which includes $1 million in taxes for the city. As such, delayed fishing seasons and other related issues can wreak major havoc.


Gigantic Dungeness Crab © woodleywonderworks/Flickr

The disastrous moratorium placed on Dungeness crab this season

The Dungeness crabs living near San Francisco were tainted with a toxic algae bloom this year, which resulted in levels of domoic acid unsafe for consumption. Health officials banned the fishing of Dungeness crab, causing an unprecedented delay in the local crab season. Eventually, recreational fishing was approved in late April, and shortly thereafter it was deemed safe for commercial fishing by the Department of Fish and Wildlife. The delay resulted in a $49 million loss for the industry, which relied on an emergency relief plan due to lack of income. The good news? Because of the delay, this season’s crab will be especially plump.


Crab boat returns to Fisherman’s Wharf San Francisco © IMLS Digital Collections & Content/Flickr

The SF crab season usually lasts from early winter to spring

In San Francisco, the season begins in mid-November and ends in June, though this changes depending on your location along the coast. The season is based on when crabs are feeding after molting. About 75 percent of annual production occurs during this period, and the season closes when the molting period begins. The hiatus then allows soft-shelled crabs to fill out their shells, undisturbed, before the next fishing season.


Washed up crab molt © Virginia State Parks/Flickr

Crabbing is strictly regulated

Only mature male crabs measuring at least five and three quarter inches across the back of the shell are harvested. Undersized crabs and females are returned to the ocean to ensure preservation of the mating cycle, which results in healthy stocks and continued harvests. The sex of crabs can be determined by looking at the crab’s abdomen.


Pachygrapsus marmoratus © George Chernilevsky/WikiCommons

One quarter of the crab’s weight is typically meat

Dungeness crabs can be distinguished from other crabs because their legs are much smaller and shorter in relation to their bodies. However, beneath the shell, they lend a sizable amount of meat. In fact, the season is delayed if crabs don’t yield enough meat, again for preservation reasons. This guarantees meaty crabs for eating, and healthy future harvests.

Dungeness Crab is deemed the ‘Best Choice’ in terms of sustainability

Due to the aforementioned fishing regulations, Seafood Watch ranked Dungeness crab as one of the most sustainable seafood choices because the stocks remain healthy and abundant. Additionally, fishermen use eco-friendly pots to catch the crabs, which do not threaten other species, and minimally impact the ecosystem.


TeaEm-SanFran-MV-29 © Tarek Mohamed/Flickr

Locals often fish for Dungeness themselves…and you can too!

There are many hotspots along the Bay to catch Dungeness crabs with nets, snares, or professional pots. One such place is the Pacifica Municipal Pier, located at 2100 Beach Blvd in Pacifica, California. Being a public pier, it is the only place in the area that doesn’t require a license. Crab snares can be purchased at most bait and sporting good stores. Be sure to check out the California Department of Fish and Game’s regulations beforehand.

Dungeness crab, since becoming a coastal staple, has also become an international commodity. The market has expanded in recent years, with about 25 percent of the harvest being exported to China and Taiwan, where Dungeness is referred to as, ‘very valuable crab.’ While in San Francisco, these local gems are definitely not to be missed.