Dan Ayres
48 Devonshire Rd.
Montesano, WA 98563
360-249-4628 ext. 209
Daniel.Ayres@dfw.wa.gov
 
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Commercial

Coastal Commercial Dungeness Crab Fishery

Westport Commercial Crab Fleet
Westport Commercial Crab Fleet

Introduction

One of the most important commercial fisheries in Washington, the commercial Dungeness crab fishery has an average (1990-2002) ex-vessel value of approximately $19.9 million. There are 228 Washington coastal commercial Dungeness crab license holders with approximately 200 fishers who are active participants in this highly competitive fishery. The season typically starts on December 1 if WDFW pre-season shell condition testing shows that the majority of the male crabs have recovered from the fall molt period and runs through September 15.

The main ports of landing for the coastal commercial Dungeness crab fishery are Ilwaco, Chinook, Westport, Tokeland and La Push where the economic impact of this fishery is substantial.

Status of the Stocks

Dungeness Crab
Dungeness Crab

Dungeness crabs exist in commercial quantities from Alaska to south of San Francisco, California. Along the Pacific coast, Dungeness crab live in the intertidal zone out to a depth of 170 meters. Washington’s coastal commercial crab grounds extend from the Columbia River to Cape Flattery near Neah Bay and include the estuary of the Columbia River, Grays Harbor, and Willapa Bay.

There is no stock assessment work conducted on coastal crab populations. Dungeness crab management on the coast is based on a minimum size limit of 6 ¼ inches, prohibition of harvest of female crab and a season closure during the primary male molt period. The minimum size limit assumes that male crab that are harvested have been sexually mature and have mated at least once before reaching legal size. Male crabs 6 ¼ inches or larger are assumed to be harvestable surplus; it is assumed that as much as 95% of the legal sized male crabs are harvested annually. In order for crab to grow they must shed their shell and expand to fill a new shell, this is referred to as molting.

Dungeness Crab molting
Dungeness Crab molting

During the early stage of the molt period crabs are soft and vulnerable to mortality due to handling; therefore, the coastal commercial fishery is closed from September 15 to early December. A Summer Fishery Management Plan was implemented in June of 2000 to protect crab that molt prior to the closure of the crab fishery in September. The plan is based on an intensive on-board sampling program designed to alert fishery managers if a large portion of the population begins molting prior to September 15.

Management Authority

Rather than shifting the management of the coastal crab fishery to a federal management plan, the U.S. Congress in 1997 granted the states of Washington, Oregon and California jurisdiction to manage Dungeness crab fisheries outside state waters (3 to 200 miles offshore). This expanded jurisdiction enabled Washington to implement a pot limitation program affecting all crab fishers in coastal Washington waters beginning with the 1999-2000 season. This move was an effort to slow the expansion of the fishery that began in the mid-1980s. This rapid expansion lead to an extremely competitive fishery where 50% of the season total is landed in the first 3-4 weeks of the 9-month season. In addition, in December 1994, Federal District Judge Edward Rafeedie upheld tribal shellfish harvest rights in Washington, ruling that Washington treaty tribes can harvest up to 50% of the harvestable shellfish in their usual and accustomed fishing grounds (U & A). Tribal U & A fishing grounds encompass approximately 50% of the Washington coastline.

Unloading Dungeness crab
Unloading Dungeness crab

Harvest

Washington coastal Dungeness crab landing data back to 1950 shows a large fluctuation in harvest, ranging from a low of 2.5 million pounds in 1981 to a high of 25 million pounds in 2004-05 averaging at 9.5 million pounds. It is believed that this large fluctuation in landings is not a result of harvest patterns, but likely due to varying ocean conditions including, water temperature, food availability, and ocean currents.