Nothing says summer like a boiling pot full of Dungeness crab. They are worth whatever they cost and that can be a lot if you consider the price of crab pots or ring nets and the boat you need to set them with. Wading the tide flats might be cheaper but you have to put in your time and wait for the right combination of an outgoing tide and calm weather to spot the crab scurrying through the eel grass.
Then you have to scoop up the crab before he heads for deep water and you go over your boots.
These days the crabbing rules (AKA the Game Warden Employment Security Act) are stricter than ever for good a reason. Every year there are thousands more people who want to go crabbing.
The Seafood Watch program of the Monterey Bay Aquarium which monitors fish harvest worldwide said our crab harvest was sustainable. This abundance of crab may have been caused by a population cycle or the fact that we have exterminated the predators of the Dungeness crab like the true cod, leaving more crab for us to catch. By harvesting only the large male crab we eliminated another predator since crabs are cannibals that prey on their own species.
Releasing the female crab lets them lay more eggs. Releasing undersized crab lets them grow larger by molting, that is they shed their shell and grow a new one. Molting crabs look pale and feel soft and there is no meat in them. There is no point in trying to cook a soft crab no matter how big they are. All you’ll get is a pile of empty shells. The soft crabs will get bigger if you release them. These may seem like small details but the only way we are going to keep crab fishing is if we release the small, female and soft crab.
A recent performance audit of the recreational, (non-commercial) crab fishery by Washington State said that the long-term population of the crab could be endangered by an estimated 45% of recreational crabbers who kill female, undersized and soft-shelled crab. These figures along with all other numbers in the crab fishery are disputed among the tribal, commercial and sport crabbers but they do show a trend.
Sport crabbers tend to be outlaws. In one enforcement study only half the sport crabbers recorded their catch on their punch card. Even if the catch is recorded only one third of summer crabbers and 10% of winter crabbers report their catch. This in spite of the fact that I had to pay an extra $10 for my next license for not reporting that I didn’t go crabbing.
One of the greatest threats to crab are the thousands of pots that are lost every year. There are many ways to lose your crab pot like setting it in 50 feet of water with 40 feet of rope. Or maybe you’ve got too much rope and it tangles with your prop and the buoy gets cut loose. Or you set your pot in water with a heavy tidal current that just washes your gear away. Lost pots generally just keep fishing unless you have a bio-degradable cord that lets the crab to escape.
Unfortunately, many of the sport fishing pots do not allow the crabs to escape. Thousands of crab die a cruel slow death only to rot and get counted as part of the catch quota. Don’t be stupid or cruel, follow the crab rules. The crab you save could be your own.