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History of Puget Sound Commercial Dungeness Crab Fishery

Dungeness Crab (Cancer magister)
Dungeness Crab (Cancer magister)

General History

The Dungeness crab (Cancer magister) is one of the most popular items on Washington seafood menus. Dungeness crab (Cancer magister) is found in commercial quantities from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska to central California. The long-term average annual landing from Alaska to California through 1987 was 37.5 million pounds (Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission 1987).

Dungeness crab got its common name from a small fishing village (Dungeness) on the Strait of Juan de Fuca in Washington where the first commercial fishing was done for this species. The Dungeness crab fishery is said to be the oldest known shellfish fishery of the North Pacific coast. A small fishery on the West Coast began in 1848 and grew through the late 1800s. It is the only commercially important crab within Washington's territorial waters.

Management of the Dungeness crab fishery within Washington State changed substantially in 1995. That year the 9th Circuit Court, in an order known as the Rafeedie Decision, made it's decision regarding the Steven's Treaties signed between the State of Washington and certain Tribes in the territory back in the 1850s. The federal court required that the harvestable surplus of shellfish in Washington be allocated equally (50/50) between the Treaty Tribes and State fisheries. The harvestable surplus in this case refers to hard-shell male crab, which measure 6¼ inches, or more in shell width. Since 1995 the State was required to implement and abide by the provisions of the federal court order.

Puget Sound Fishery

Most of the Puget Sound fishery for Dungeness crabs occurs from Everett northward, with the bulk of the harvest in the Blaine/Point Roberts area. Other specific areas that produce large commercial quantities of crab include Bellingham, Samish, Padilla, Skagit, and Dungeness Bays, Port Gardner, and Port Susan. Puget Sound crabbers typically use smaller boats and lighter pots than do crabbers on the open coast.

The state commercial fishery increased from 89 vessels participating in 1972 to more than 400 in 1979. To keep the fishery economically viable for those participating, the legislature limited the state commercial crab fishery in Puget Sound to 250 licenses in 1980 (each license is allowed to use 100 crab pots). No new licenses have been issued since 1980, and in 2002 the state commercial fishery was comprised of 181 crab fishers holding the 250 licenses.

Preseason estimates of crab abundance had not been made due to difficulty and cost. Until 2002, most regions within Puget Sound were managed without pre-season quotas. Most regions within Puget Sound are now managed with a pre-season quota that is based on past harvest amounts. There are provisions for adjustment if early season landings indicate an adjustment is warranted.

Annual landings for the state commercial fishery in Puget Sound from 1984 through 1993 averaged 1.8 million pounds. Annual landings for the state commercial fishery in Puget Sound from 1993 through 2001 averaged 2.3 million pounds.