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Dungeness crab
Dungeness crab measuring 17 cm (6.7 in)
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Malacostraca
Order: Decapoda
Infraorder: Brachyura
Superfamily: Cancroidea
Family: Cancridae
Genus: Metacarcinus
Species: M. magister
Binomial name
Metacarcinus magister
(Dana, 1852) [1]

Cancer magister Dana, 1852 [1]

The Dungeness crab, Metacarcinus magister (formerly Cancer magister), is a species of crab that inhabits West Coast eelgrass beds and water bottoms from Alaska's Aleutian Islands to Santa Cruz, California.[2] They are named after Dungeness, Washington,[2] which is located approximately five miles north of Sequim and 15 miles east of Port Angeles. Its (former) binomial name, Cancer magister, simply means "master crab" in Latin.



They measure as much as 25 centimetres (9.8 in) in some areas off the coast of Washington, but typically are under 20 centimetres (7.9 in).[3] They are a popular delicacy, and are the most commercially important crab in the Pacific Northwest, western Canada, as well as the western states generally.[4] The annual Dungeness Crab and Seafood Festival is held in Port Angeles each October.[5]

Close-up of the face. The two eyes sit on eyestalks, with two antennules on either side of the rostrum (center, above the mouth).

Dungeness crabs have a wide, long, hard shell, which they must periodically molt to grow; this process is called ecdysis. They have five pairs of legs, which are similarly armored, the foremost pair of which ends in claws that the crab uses both as defense and to tear apart large food items. The crab uses its smaller appendages to pass the food particles into its mouth. Once inside the crab's stomach, food is further digested by the "gastric mill", a collection of tooth-like structures. Cancer magister prefers to eat clams, other crustaceans and small fish, but is also an effective scavenger. Dungeness crabs can also bury themselves completely in the sand if threatened.

Males are attracted to potential mates by pheromones present in the urine of female Dungeness crabs. Upon locating an available female, the male initiates a protective pre-mating embrace that lasts for several days. In this embrace, the female is tucked underneath the male, oriented such that their abdomens touch and their heads face each other. Mating occurs only after the female has molted, and the female signals her readiness to molt by urinating on or near the antennae of the male. The female extrudes the eggs from her body several months later; however, they remain attached under her abdomen for three to five months until they hatch. Young crabs are free-swimming after hatching, and go through five larval stages before reaching maturity after about ten moults or two years.

The safest place to hold the Dungeness crab is its back. Although the hind part of the crab is commonly used to pick up the crab, their claws can sometimes reach the holder's hand.

Dungeness crab have recently been found in the Atlantic Ocean, far from their known range, raising concern about their possible effects on the local wildlife.[6]


Seafood Watch has given it a Sustainable seafood rating of 'Best Choice'.[7]


Dungeness crabs can typically be purchased either live or pre-cooked. Larger crabs are valued for the higher meat to shell ratio. Live crabs are cooked simply by steaming for 15–18 minutes, or by boiling for approximately 10 minutes in water. Beer, crab boil spices, or other flavorings can also be added to the water if desired. In Cantonese cuisine, the crabs are sometimes deep-fried or broiled, then stir-fried with green onion and sliced ginger.[8] For ideal freshness, Dungeness crabs should be cooked as soon as possible after catching, and many crab boats have steaming pots on board and will cook and pack the crabs in ice for delivery.[citation needed] Dungeness crabs will stop eating when removed from the pressure and cold temperatures of their habitat, so keeping them alive in aquaria for even a day will degrade their quality.[citation needed] The starvation process will make the meat spongy and discolored (greyish) and will draw calcium from the shell, weakening the shell of the crab. When buying crabs, freshness can be tested by feeling the outer parts of the legs. If they bend easily, the crab isn't fresh. Unlike blue crabs, Dungenesses are not sold as soft-shells.

Dungeness crab ready to eat at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco

Like all crabs, the Dungeness crab is high in protein and minerals, and low in fat.[citation needed] About one quarter of this crab's weight is meat,[9] making it one of the meatiest crabs available.[citation needed] Most of the meat is in the eight legs and two claws, although the body contains plenty as well.[citation needed]

The flesh has what is considered to be a delicate flavor that is slightly sweet.

Two common tools for removing crab meat from the shell are a crab cracker and a shrimp fork. Sometimes, a cleaver, mallet or small hammer are used for cracking.[10] Experienced eaters use one of the crab's own pointy "toes" to dig out the meat. Many Alaskans and coastal people use only their bare hands to break the shell and extract the meat.[citation needed] Melted butter with garlic is sometimes used as a dipping sauce when eating the meat of the Dungeness crab. Regular melted butter and cocktail sauce or Thousand Island dressing are also popular.[citation needed]

State crustacean

In 2009, based on lobbying from schoolchildren at Sunset Primary School in West Linn, Oregon, and citing its importance to the Oregon economy, the Oregon State Legislature designated the Dungeness crab as the state crustacean of Oregon.[11]


  1. ^ a b Peter K. L. Ng, Danièle Guinot & Peter J. F. Davie (2008). "Systema Brachyurorum: Part I. An annotated checklist of extant Brachyuran crabs of the world". Raffles Bulletin of Zoology 17: 1–286. 
  2. ^ a b "The Dungeness Crab". Dungeness community website. Retrieved August 28 2006. 
  3. ^ Crabs are measured across the widest part of their back, excluding the legs. See, e.g., 2006-2007 Fishing in Washington Rule Pamphlet (pdf), p. 130.
  4. ^ "Species Fact Sheet. Cancer magister Dana, 1852". FAO. 2004-01-22. 
  5. ^ "Dungeness Crab and Seafood Festival". 
  6. ^ Andrea Cohen (2006-08-09). "Crab nabbed; circumstances fishy". MIT News Office. 
  7. ^ Seafood Recommendations: Dungeness Crab. Seafood WATCH. Accessed 2009-12-19.
  8. ^ "Cooking Dungeness Crabs". Retrieved 2008-10-28. 
  9. ^ Saekel, Karola (November 18, 1998). "For Bay Area Crab Lovers, The Boats Are Coming In". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2008-10-07. 
  10. ^ "Online video teaching how to crack and clean Dungeness crab". 
  11. ^ "House Joint Resolution 37, 2009 (Enrolled)". Oregon State Legislature. Retrieved 2009-10-23. 

Further reading

  • Dixon, Kirsten (2003). The Winterlake Lodge Cookbook: Culinary Adventures in the Wilderness. Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Books. ISBN 9780882405629. OCLC 51855528. 
  • Hibler, Jane (1991). Dungeness Crabs and Blackberry Cobblers: The Northwest Heritage Cookbook. New York, NY: Knopf. ISBN 9780394577456. OCLC 24430394. 


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