WDFW establishes Coastal Recreational Crab Unit; improves Dungeness crab monitoring and management
Fishers can catch Dungeness and red rock crabs along the coast year-round from Neah Bay to the Columbia River.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) has a newly formed Coastal Recreational Crab Monitoring Program tasked with developing enhanced monitoring and field activities for coastal crab spanning from Neah Bay to the Columbia River, including Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay. The team is based in the Montesano Region 6 office and the Willapa Bay Field Station in Ocean Park.
The Dungeness crab is an iconic and valuable fishery resource that is culturally and economically important to Washington’s coastal communities.
The coastal commercial Dungeness crab fishery is a stable, long running fishery that supports the livelihoods of many and is critical to the economies of Washington’s coastal communities. Historical catch records going back to the 1950s show average landings of more than 10 million pounds.
Dungeness crab harvest of Dungeness crab is popular for many on the coast. WDFW’s new program will support data collection that ensures the sustainable management of this important resource.
The recreational crab sampling team began collecting data on crab catch and fishing effort this summer by sampling popular coastal crabbing access sites, boat launches, beaches, docks, and piers. Samplers will be gathering biological information about crabs caught, including size and sex, as well as statistical information from recreational crabbers through a series of interview questions. WDFW asks the public for their assistance when encountering a crab sampler, as the information collected is essential for the successful management of the coastal crab fishery.
The goal of this program is to estimate crabbing effort and harvest along the Washington coast. This work will support WDFW’s mission to preserve, protect, and perpetuate fish, wildlife, and ecosystems while providing sustainable fish and wildlife recreational and commercial opportunities. The agency is committed to sustainably managing recreational and commercial crab fisheries.
Dungeness crab populations face many potential threats including warming water temperatures, hypoxia, ocean acidification, impacts of fishing, proper use of crab gear, and coastal development.
As these types of situations arise, the recreational team, along with WDFW resource managers, will be able to use fishery and biological data from the program to look for ways to develop and implement adaptive responses to sustain Dungeness crab populations and the biological infrastructure they rely on off the coastal waters.
Dungeness crab inhabit all of Washington’s marine waterways and can be found along the 157 miles of coastline stretching from Neah Bay south to Ilwaco.
The Dungeness crab shell is purple-tinged, gray, or brown on the back and the tips of the claws are typically white. They’re known to measure six to eight inches across the back (carapace) but can reach up to 10 inches and a bigger one can weigh two-plus pounds.
Another species is the red rock crab and can be distinguished from a Dungeness crab by the presence of black on the tips of its claws and its red coloration. A red rock usually measures less than six inches across the back and is characterized by large claws. Despite being less meaty than the Dungeness crab, red rock crab meat is also very tasty.
Dungeness crabs favor eelgrass beds, and sandy or a muddy substrate. They are typically found along the entire coast, including bays and lagoons from the surface down to 750 feet although recreational crabbers will usually go to depths no deeper than 150 feet.
A red rock crab prefers rocky substrates but can also be found in eelgrass, soft-bottom habitat, and shellfish beds from the mid intertidal to depths of about 260 feet.
Coastal crabbing opportunities
Recreational crabbing on the coast with crab pots is open from Dec. 1 through Sept. 15 — except for in Willapa Bay, which is open Nov. 15 through Sept. 15. Using all other crab gear aside from pots along the entire coast is open year-round.
The Westport public fishing pier, at float 20 in the marina and floats 17 to 21 by the boat launch, have limited access for crabbing. The Westport jetty and surrounding shorelines are other locations when the water’s not too rough.
Heading south, the Tokeland public fishing dock is another option to catch crab.
Both the Tokeland and Westport marinas do not allow crabbing after sunset. Crabbers also need to remove gear overnight at Westport and Tokeland. At Tokeland, crabbing is allowed on the other floats, provided you’re not impeding on boats.
The Port of Peninsula marina in Nahcotta is located on the Long Beach Peninsula just north of the Willapa Bay Field Station. The catch around the dock is primarily red rock crab.
On the southern coast, there are a few options at Cape Disappointment State Park near Ilwaco including the north jetty, and the Cape Disappointment State Park boat launch dock and retaining wall.
Those crabbing from a boat can try the protected waters of Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay or around the Columbia River mouth and the northern tip of the coast. If you plan to crab out in the ocean, please use extreme caution and watch the weather report.
Coastal crab regulations
Coastal crab fishing rules are different from those in Puget Sound, and you can find a wealth of information by going to the WDFW crab webpage.
Before you head out the door, be sure you have the proper fishing license for crabbing on the coast that includes Neah Bay (Marine Area 4 west of the Bonilla-Tatoosh line), and Ilwaco, Westport and La Push (Marine Areas 1, 2 and 3).
All sport crabbers 15 years or older must carry a current Washington fishing license. Options range from an annual shellfish/seaweed license to combination fishing licenses, valid for a single day or up to a year. Catch record cards aren’t required along the coast.
The daily limit for Dungeness crab on the coast is six male hardshell crab with a minimum size of six inches (have a proper measuring caliper). Crabbers must retain the back shell (carapace) while in the field and release all soft-shell, females and undersized crab. The daily limit for red rock crab is six male or female hardshell with a minimum size of 5 inches. Crabbers must retain the back shell (carapace) while in the field and release all soft-shell crab.
Dungeness and Red Rock crab can be harvested with a crab pot, ring net, fishing rod and reel with a snare or foldable trap, dip net, crab rake or hand line — each method depends on where you’re planning to catch crab — as well as the proper bait, and a fishing license. You can find statewide crab gear rules on the WDFW webpage.
Dropping a crab pot off docks, piers, sea walls, or other structures is the most popular method. The fishing rod with a snare or foldable trap works best when you need to cast away from the shoreline to get to proper depth or area that crab inhabit. A crab rake or dip net works well when fishing in a lagoon or wading in channels. A hand line with a bait attached is a fun and simple way to catch crab.
Extreme tidal fluctuations can pose a challenge when dropping crab pots from a boat or other watercraft.
Recreational crabbers should target the portion of the day with the least tide exchange and make sure their crab pots are properly weighted down during these extreme low tides to avoid traps moving and becoming lost. Crabbers can find helpful information on how to properly weight crab pots, by going to the Northwest Straits Commission webpage.
A proper colored buoy (must be half red and half white in color, and both colors need to be visible when fishing) on the water’s surface is just as important as the rope it hangs off. By law the buoy must be legibly marked with the operator’s first name, last name, and permanent address (a phone number is optional).
The buoy must be constructed of durable material (no bleach, antifreeze, detergent bottles, paint cans, etc.) and must be visible on the surface except during extreme tidal conditions. Personal flags and staff, if attached to buoys, can be of any color and some like to add a bright metallic colored tinsel or other reflective materials to make it stand out from others.
All crab pots must be equipped with a biodegradable device (rot/escape cord) and shall include one or more of the following: securing the pot lid hook or tie down strap with a single loop of “rot” cord; or sewing a 3" by 5" escape panel in the upper half of pot closed with “rot” cord; or attaching the pot lid or one pot side (serving as a pot lid) with no more than three single loops of cord.
“Rot” cord used must be untreated 100% cotton or other natural fiber (hemp, jute, or sisal) no larger than thread size 120. This cord must be able to rot away and allow crab and other sea life to escape freely if the pot is lost. A derelict crab pot without proper escape cord can attract and kill crabs for years after the pot has been lost.
Bait boxes store the bait inside a crab pot and make it difficult for the crabs to consume all the bait.
The best baits for crabbing are razor clams, salmon or fish carcasses and heads as well as squid, clams, shrimp, chicken, or turkey parts. Fresh bait works the best, avoid using anything rancid because just like humans, crab will avoid anything stinky and unappealing to their palate. You can also doctor up the bait with a store-bought liquid attractant to create a scent line.
Check your pots regularly as crabs are known to cannibalize on one another especially when soft-shelled. Ring nets should be monitored more regularly as bait can be easily removed by a crab.
“Crab populations along the coastline stretching from Neah Bay south to Ilwaco, provide a year-round opportunity for recreational crabbers,” said Charlotte Berry-Powell, the WDFW lead coastal recreational crab biologist.