A few weeks ago, Brian Toste ’99 and his three-man crew set out from Westport, in southwest Washington, in Toste’s 45-foot vessel Huntress in search of Dungeness crab. They spent the first few days tying line and setting out some 500 crab traps, circles of metal and wire about the size and shape of large truck tires.

A few days later, when the traps were full, they returned to their buoys and pulled them out of the water. The crew quickly empties them by hand, says Toste. They toss the females and the male crabs smaller than 6-¼ inches across the back into the water, replenish the bait (usually squid and dead fish), and drop the pot back in before zooming off to the next one.

For the first three to four weeks of the season, the trap is full with up to 20 wriggling brown crabs. Males of the right size are dropped into a live storage tank.

All this is done pretty much regardless of the weather or the waves. “You have to keep track of the tide and the times, you have to take advantage of the weather windows,” says Toste. The peak of the Dungeness crab harvest is January and February, right smack in the middle of winter storm season. Toste and his crew are often out in 30-foot swells retrieving and emptying their pots.

“It’s extremely miserable out there,” says Toste. It helps if you are aggressive and physical. “When you’re in the crab, the work’s easy.” It’s a race to tend all 500 pots in a day. Washington fishermen set pots anywhere between 12 feet and 200 feet below the surface, says Toste. He typically fishes up to 60 feet deep.

In Washington, the commercial fishing season usually opens in early December in an area 13 miles north of the Columbia River and south and a month later along the Olympic Peninsula. The tribal fishery starts earlier. While just 238 commercial fishermen are licensed along with 30 tribal fishermen to hunt for crab along Washington’s coast, there are tens of thousands of pots out there. “It’s extremely crowded,” says Toste. In some places at peak season, “we don’t have the width of a pickup between one string and another.”

“It’s like a gold rush,” says Steve Harbell, the WSU/UW Marine Fisheries coordinator. “A lot of crab is harvested in the first couple of weeks.” The season continues through the summer. But as the days grow longer, fewer and fewer crabs show up in the pots. Toste catches 85 percent of his crab in the first month, and he readies for the end of harvest somewhere in late summer after he starts pulling up empties.

While the crab is named for Dungeness Bay, an inlet along the Strait of Juan de Fuca near Port Angeles, its habitat includes the Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean Shelf, which runs from Alaska down to Santa Barbara, California. From the intertidal shore out to 300 feet deep, the crabs cover the floor by the millions, crawling across it on their sideways hunt for food.

The commercial harvest can only open if the crabs are ready, says Brian’s dad, Ray Toste, head of the Washington Dungeness Crab Fisherman’s Association. “We do seasonal testing,” he says. Following a certain protocol, crab managers check for toxins and to see if the crab is in optimal condition, mature with strong shells and plenty of meat.

“Crustaceans are kind of like insects, they have to shed their shells to grow,” says Harbell. The crabs you find at the market or store are likely four years old and may have shed their shells 12 times to get to harvestable size. “I say to kids, ‘How would you like to grow in the same clothes you have on?’”

Before and after molting, the crab develops its new shell. While the shell is still soft, the crab inflates it slightly with water, to make it a little bigger to grow into. Before and after the molt the meat isn’t the best quality, says Harbell. “And when you handle them with a soft shell, you can kill them pretty easily.” The major molt typically takes place in the late summer and early fall. During that time, crab fishing season is closed.

Even though they’re taking around 90 percent of the harvestable crab, by throwing back the females and the smaller males, the fishermen have been able to keep the Washington Dungeness stocks high, says Harbell. “Many years ago, we thought we were on a seven year cycle with peak years every seven,” says Harbell. But the last 20 years have changed that thinking. “The record catch for Washington was about 21 million pounds, and we’ve been in about 12 million, which is a good harvest, for the past three years.”

When the crabs are mature and the shell sufficiently hard, their meat yield is about 25 percent of their weight, one of the highest yield ratios of any food crab, says Harbell. If you don’t catch your own crab, he has this advice. “First it depends on what you’re going to do with it.” Some people like to serve crab in the shell, he notes. But for just the meat, you simply need to do the math. Remember that 25 percent meat yield. “If it’s $5 for the meat, versus $20 for the whole crab, you’re paying the same price, and you don’t have to do the work.”

Nonetheless, crabs are not so hard to clean, says Harbell. “All of us amateurs can shake a crab in five minutes,” he says. It takes a pro about a minute. The task of cleaning a cooked crab involves removing the back and flipping it over and pulling off the shell covering the abdomen. Then you pull off the visceral organs. A brown matter, called crab butter, will be present. Harbell likes to eat it with the crab, but most people wash it off. Then the body can be broken in half and the legs with attached body meat can be snapped off one at a time.

Dungeness is not like blue crab, which requires an intensive picking and cleaning, says Harbell. With the Dungeness, the sweet and delicate meat slides right out.

Jim Haguewood ’81, former director of the Clallam County Economic Development Council, has been eating and cleaning crab for as long as he can remember. His family owned the Haguewoods Restaurant in Port Angeles for 58 years. After graduating in hotel and restaurant management, he came home and ran the local landmark until 1998. Since then he’s turned his efforts toward economic development, but food isn’t far behind. “When you’re helping a community develop its economy, you look at what it has that’s truly unique,” says Haguewood. “For us, one of those things is Dungeness crab. We have the name and we have the crab.”

In 2002, the Port Angeles community kicked off its first Dungeness Crab and Seafood Festival. With the seafood, a growing local wine industry, and a burgeoning year-round fresh-produce business, the town couldn’t ignore its food assets. “With the festival, restaurants create their own unique menu items and they’re paired with wine,” says Haguewood. Crab cakes, crab rolls, crab dip, crab rangoon, crab Louis, crab cocktail, crab quesadillas, and crab bisque are just some of the offerings. Still, Haguewood’s favorite way to eat Dungeness crab is the simplest—cooked in salted water and then chilled.

Locally, there are several ways to obtain crabs, he says. One is to boat out on the water and put down a crab trap. You go back at least half a day later and retrieve it. The second is to fish off a pier using a ring net with a box of bait inside. And the third requires less equipment. On certain low tides, anyone with hip waders, a sack, and a rake can walk out at night with a flashlight and spot the crabs just under the water and pick them up. “It’s quite a social event,” says Haguewood. To do any of these, you must obtain a state crab fishing license and complete a catch record card.

You can also go out and look for a commercial fisherman selling crabs off his boat, says Toste. While he sells much of his catch to a processor, Toste will also sell to the live market and to locals who seek him out at the dock.

Toste grew up with his dad and brothers out fishing. He went to WSU and studied education and later found work in the Seattle area. But eventually he found his way back to Westport and on to a fishing vessel. In 2005, he bought his own boat, and in the past few years found a great crew, the key pieces to a successful crab fishing business. “I had to come back,” says Toste. “It’s in my blood.

On the web

Fishing for crab in Washington (Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Dungeness Crab and Seafood Festival