’Tis the season for Dungeness delicacy
written by Julie Lee
Internationally sought for its sweet flavor, Oregon Dungeness crab appeals to all, from foodies to newbies who want to wade a toe into eating seafood.
Commercially harvested since the 1800s, Oregon is well known for Dungeness. The Dungeness crab fishery is Oregon’s most valuable “single species” fishery, and Oregon named the Dungeness crab the official state crustacean in 2009.
The Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission, fully funded by commercial crab fishermen, was established in 1977 to research, educate and promote the image of crab. Tim Novotny was recently named executive director of the commission. “We try to be good industry partners wherever we can,” said Novotny, “supporting our fishermen by inspiring ongoing dialogue with the academic community, keeping abreast of the issues facing our ocean resource, and driving research to help maintain a sustainable fishery. Our fishermen depend on us to keep up to date on challenges they’re facing and help explain to the public how they’re being impacted by those challenges.”
With minimal gear and patience, even a novice can catch Dungeness, found up and down 363 miles of Oregon coastline. Easily identified by white-tipped claws and as Novotny points out “the ‘little coyote,’ or devil horn sheep,” on their back, Dungeness crabs reside in both shallow estuaries and deep ocean waters.
Fascinating creatures by nature, they walk sideways to avoid tripping and immediately grow new legs to replace any lost in a fight. Crabs hatch as tiny larvae, settling on the ocean’s bottom floor once they become dime-size. During the first two years of life, they shed their shells multiple times, a process called molting, getting bigger each time.
Dungeness crab season runs December to August, with sweet spot seasonality sometime in the first six to eight weeks of opening. There are many ways to catch crab, and while it’s conceivable to crab from a dock with rings or even a fishing rod, taking out a boat with traps or pots gives greater access.
Crabbing faces new challenges due to climate change and other factors. The cancellation of the Alaska snow crab season last year shocked the industry, following the cancellation of the king crab season in 2021 and 2022. Kelly Laviolette worries this will put pressure on Oregon Dungeness, a “small business that gives everyone a taste.”
Laviolette owned Kelly’s Brighton Marina for over a decade, crabbing commercially and recently retired, selling the business to a young family. He said the commercial crabbing business is hard but rewarding work, and he and his wife enjoyed Kelly’s Marina being a micro-destination for people to gather. “Crabbing is always this simple connecting rod,” he said. “It’s a great experience for kids to work in the business—as close to being an Alaskan experience as you can get. You can tell how successful people are at crabbing by how wet they get. Myself—I like to be the puller.”
Laviolette feels crabbing should be a top five list of things to do for any Oregon visitors. “It’s like therapy,” said Laviolette. “It’s a simple activity that doesn’t change through the years. When crabbing is good, it’s so rewarding.”
Recreational crabber Dave Schaerer agrees. Schaerer grew up fishing the Umpqua River “from the time I could walk.” Now 75 years old, he “is addicted to crabbing. It’s in my DNA—a wonderful source of friendships, memories and beautiful photography.”
Schaerer loves the idea of food to table after living off the land as a young man and feels it’s critical for a younger generation to get involved in crabbing and fishing. “I spend a lot of time in Tillamook Bay—I see older people like me, retirees, but not nearly as many young people,” he said. “It concerns me. I don’t think young people realize how critical it is to treasure these fisheries and enhance them. This is part of our heritage.”
Peter Kirk, whose son Fischer worked for Kelly’s Marina and himself starting fishing as a toddler, agrees. “I like to spawn interest in the younger generation to explore, recreate the outdoors,” Kirk said. “The extra benefit of crabbing is the bounty of the sea, the saltwater, the sound of the ocean waves, the sea life! It all feels good—very positive ions. Good energy!”
Schaerer claims the past few years have been some of the best crabbing in memory. “We see an abundance of bait fish in the ocean,” he said. “The crabs are doing well. Sometimes we get skunked fishing, but we never get skunked crabbing.” His advice for getting into the industry? “Find a friend who has a boat and go out. You’ll become addicted like me.”
Darci Hansen of Berkshire Hathaway Garibaldi has followed that advice, going out whenever she can. She first went crabbing as a 7-year-old and like Laviolette, “always liked to do the pulling” as soon as she was old enough to carry the heavy pots. Her favorite way to eat crab is slightly warm, right from the shell, a recipe you can find here from chef Leif Benson of the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission.
Fisherman’s Market in Eugene is one of the best places to find fresh seafood inland, and owner Ryan Rogers shares his favorite crab recipe, Fisherman’s Market Jalapeño Dungeness Crab Dip.
And if you are in the mood for savory comfort food, McMinnville’s Humble Spirit contributes their delicious Dungeness Crab Pot Pie recipe.