Crustaceans, Pacific Northwest
People often mistake empty Dungeness shells strewn along beaches for dead crabs. Crabs shed and grow new shells regularly as part of their growth process. The old shell splits at the back and along the sides so the crab can back out. The shell the crab leaves behind is an almost intact replica of the crab.
Dungeness crabs are typically light brown in color. These creatures have one pair of claws and four pairs of walking legs. Their claws are serrated and so are the edges of their shells from the eyes down to the middle of the body.
Crabs are measured by the width of their shell. A male Dungeness crab can grow to a width of about 230 mm and can weigh up to about 2 kg. The Dungeness crab’s slender, light-colored claw tips distinguish it from other crab species, as does its relatively large size.
As a predator, the Dungeness crab eats clams, mussels, crabs and other crustaceans as well as some small fish. Crabs pursue prey more actively at night, tending to bury themselves in the sand during the day. When moving along the sea bottom, these crabs find and capture prey by probing the sand with their legs or claws.
Dungeness crabs can move in any direction-quickly enough to give a scuba diver a run for his money!
The Dungeness crab is distributed along the west coast from Mexico to Alaska. It inhabits waters up to depths of about 180 meters. Although these crabs can sometimes be spotted on mud and gravel, they prefer sandy bottoms and shallow cool waters around eelgrass.
Predators of the Dungeness crab include octopus, halibut, dogfish, sculpin, birds and other crabs. Crabs are most vulnerable immediately after they’ve molted when their bodies are soft and lack the protection of a hard shell.
When I was a young man, my friend Jimmy and I were hand logging up in Blunden Harbor across from Port Hardy. We had no way of freezing meat, so we were on a diet of canned meats for the 3 to 4 months we would be in there. So we would supplement this diet with the odd Canada goose or mallard duck along with fish and we also set out crab and prawn traps.
One day, a crab trap I was pulling up seemed to be very heavy and I assumed that a large starfish had attached itself to the outside of the trap. But as I got the trap up to where I could see it in the water, I realized that it was a very large and I mean giant Dungeness crab. This crab was on the outside of the trap and hanging on. I started to pull as fast as I could and just as I was getting the trap into the skiff, the crab fell off, but it landed in the boat. This was the biggest crab I had ever seen, even to this day.