The bright summer sun shines over the small beach town of Coos Bay, Oregon on an early July morning. The only clouds in sight are at the far end of the sky, a soft wind blows through the air and a distant rumble comes from the commercial boats floating nearby in the marina. This is Charleston, Oregon, home of the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology where scientist Dr. Alan Shanks performs extensive research on Cancer Magister, the Dungeness crab.
Since 2006, Shanks has been funded by the Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission (ODCC) to report the data he collects on these small crustaceans. The ODCC is headquartered in Coos Bay, Oregon and regulates the commercial crabbing industry for the entire state. The commission aims “to enhance the image of the Dungeness crab industry, and to increase opportunities for profitability through promotion, education and research.”
Dr. Shanks and the ODCC have developed a close relationship in which he reports his yearly catch of megalopae for commercial catch insight. Although fisherman do not catch Dungeness crab at this early life stage, Shanks predicts the commercial catch numbers four years later with his own catch of megalopae. He has noticed throughout his 20 years of sampling that there is a strong translation (>90% variation) between the spring transition and the number of megalopae he has caught.
Macro images of the Dungeness crab in the megalopa stage with a visible tail.
However, at first, the crab population was not so stable. When fishing began in 1848, crabs were not sought out by fisherman, but were rather by-catch in other fisheries in the San Francisco Bay. By 1860, the commercial industry was in full swing - but with regulations. All of the Dungeness crabs were caught in the San Francisco Bay, since offshore fishing was prohibited. Soon after, the Dungeness crab population depleted, and the fishery had no choice but to search in different waters. At the time, it was also illegal to sell deceased crabs, or transport them outside of California, which limited the fishery to Northern California, since few people financially supported the crab market.
Original wooden boats with hull design in San Francisco Bay Photo by J.B. Phillips, 1934.
Image courtesy of Dr. Alan Shanks