Dungeness and snow crabs are two of the most common crab types found in fish markets and restaurants.
Whether you’re interested in consuming them or want to learn more about these two species, you might wonder which are the differences between them.
Dungeness crabs and snow crabs belong to different families. Dungeness crabs are endemic to the Pacific Ocean. They prefer sandy bottoms, shallower water up to 165 feet deep, and temperate climates. Snow crabs live in the colder waters of the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean, and the Japanese seas. They prefer muddy bottoms, deeper water and are smaller than Dungeness crabs.
Snow crabs are typically more expensive than Dungeness crabs and are often considered tastier.
The table below shows a quick list of facts and differences between snow crabs vs. Dungeness crabs*:
|Characteristics||Dungeness crab||Snow crab|
|Classification (species)||Cancer magister||Chionoecetes opilio|
|Geographic range||Pacific Ocean||Northern Pacific Ocean, Northwest Atlantic Ocean, Japanese seas|
|Habitat||Sandy bottoms and temperatures above 42.8°F||Muddy bottoms and temperatures from 30.2°F to 41°F|
|Average depth||165 feet||492 feet|
|Size (width)||10 inches||6 inches|
|Weight||1.5 to 4 pounds||1.1 to 4 pounds|
|Physical characteristics||Broad, oval body with a purplish to grayish-brown carapace. Cream-colored undersides. Shorter legs in relation to their bodies and no spines on top of the shell.||Flat, round carapace ranging in color from sandy-brown to bright red. Olive to yellowish underside. Longer legs in relation to their bodies. No spines on top of the shell.|
|Predators||Seals and sea lions||Cod, soles, salmons, seals, sea lions, octopi|
|Lifespan||Up to 10 years||Up to 20 years|
|Harvest season||Variable||April to September|
|Price||About $11.95 per pound||About $17 per pound|
|Taste||Mild and slightly nutty||Sweet, subtly briny flavor|
*Data in the table above was sourced from scientific publications, governmental institutions, and other official sources.
Dungeness Crab Vs. Snow Crab: 15 Differences
1. Classification (Species)
Dungeness and snow crabs are not only two different crab species, they actually belong to different families.
Dungeness crabs are part of the rock crab family (Cancridae) and the only member living on the western coast of North America. Members of the Cancridae family are considered “true” crabs.
Snow crabs are part of the Oregoniidae family which includes four genera. The main difference between this family and Cancridae is the length of the legs – snow crabs have longer legs in relation to their bodies.
2. Geographic Range
Dungeness and snow crabs not only belong to different families, but they also have different temperature and water depth preferences.
These preferences dictate in which parts of the world they live.
Dungeness crabs live on the western coast of North America, in the Pacific Ocean.
Even though they prefer chiller waters, these crabs actually live in warm waters compared to other crab species, thriving in temperatures over 42.8°F.
They can live in colder waters, too, but generally can’t withstand temperatures lower than 38°F. Their geographic range is broad, spanning from Alaska to Mexico.
Snow crabs prefer cooler waters, but they have a much broader geographic range than Dungeness crabs.
The largest range of snow crab spans from Maine to Greenland, even though the majority of the population concentrates near the Canadian provinces adjacent to the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Populations of snow crabs also live off the coast of Asia in the Sea of Okhotsk and the Sea of Japan. On the American West Coast, they are mostly concentrated near Alaska, in the Bering Sea, and the Northern Pacific Ocean.
While snow crabs can withstand temperatures up to 41°F, they prefer colder waters with temperatures no higher than 37.4°F.
Both Dungeness and snow crabs live in saltwater environments, but they have different habitat preferences.
Dungeness crabs like sandy bottoms and shallower waters, often being found in the intertidal zone. However, they can be found on almost any bottom type.
Snow crabs prefer muddy bottoms and deeper waters, but like Dungeness crabs, they can be found on various bottoms.
4. Average Depth
Another difference between the two species is the preferred depth.
Snow crabs typically prefer deeper waters, presumably because they remain cooler throughout the year.
The average depth of adult snow crabs is around 500 feet, even though larger individuals – which are typically older – can be found at depths over 1,000 feet.
Dungeness crabs like warmer temperatures and typically live in shallower waters. They can be found at depths of 750 feet, but this is rare.
Their preferred average depth is no deeper than 165 feet, and they are rarely abundant at depths beyond 300 feet.
5. Size (Width)
From a visual standpoint, one of the main differences between Dungeness and snow crabs is their size, the former being larger.
In fact, Dungeness crabs typically grow to widths up to 10 inches – even though smaller sizes up to six or seven inches across the back are more common.
Comparatively, snow crabs are almost two times smaller, with carapace widths up to six inches.
Like Dungeness crabs, snow crabs are often smaller than six inches, and the females rarely exceed three inches in width.
However, snow crabs have longer legs, which can make them look larger compared to the Dungeness type.
Despite the size differences, there aren’t major weight variations between snow and Dungeness crabs.
An average Dungeness crab measuring 6.5 inches in width typically weighs between two and three pounds. Larger crabs are heavier, but the upper threshold is around four pounds.
Snow crabs are smaller in size and also slightly lighter. An average female with a width of just over 3.5 inches typically weighs around one pound.
Larger males measuring 6.5 inches across typically weigh around three pounds, similar to Dungeness crabs.
7. Physical Characteristics
Dungeness crabs can sometimes be mistaken for other rock crab types, but they are fairly easy to recognize by their purple to grayish brown carapace with cream undersides.
The claws are typically white, and these crustaceans have shorter legs compared to their body size.
An important distinction between male and female Dungeness crabs is the abdomen, which is narrow in males and wide and rounded in females.
Identifying the crab gender is crucial for fishermen and crabbers since harvesting females is against regulations.
Snow crabs are the king crabs’ smaller cousins. They don’t have spikes on the shell, but the carapace maintains the same warm color ranging from sandy brown to bright red.
An important difference between snow and Dungeness crabs is that snow crabs have longer feet compared to their body size, similar to king crabs.
Like Dungeness crabs, snow crab females have wider abdomens than males. They are also smaller in size, typically around two times smaller than males.
Both crab types are solitary creatures, typically only coming together during the breeding season.
For Dungeness crabs, mating occurs in late spring and summer, when females are molting, but males are still in a hard shell condition.
When females are molting – and, thus, are ready to mate, they release pheromones that attract male crabs.
Delayed fertilization allows Dungeness crab females to only allow egg fertilization in fall, then broods them on her abdomen until the crab larvae hatch in the next spring.
Snow crabs display similar behavior, but males are typically more invested in the mating ritual.
Not only do they stick to their chosen females, but during the mating season, the male protects, feeds, and helps the female molt.
However, like Dungeness crabs, male snow crabs offer no further investment after fertilization, the female carrying the fertilized eggs for up to three years.
Dungeness and snow crabs alike are carnivorous creatures feeding on plankton, larvae, fish, shrimps, and other marine animals.
Both species can also become scavengers, feeding on fish carrion, but snow crabs may also include plants in their diets, such as algae and phytoplankton.
Dungeness crabs have a variety of predators, especially during the larvae and juvenile stages.
Before adulthood, they are prey for halibuts, octopi, salmon, dogfish, and waterfowl. As adults, Dungeness crabs have few predators but are still hunted by seals and sea lions.
Due to their smaller size, snow crabs have many more predators in their larvae, juvenile, and adult stages alike. One of the most common predators is the cod fish, but salmon and octopi also prey on snow crabs.
Other predators include waterfowl, sea otters, seals, sea lions, and a variety of other fish.
A major difference between Dungeness and snow crabs is the lifespan, with the latter typically living two times longer.
12. Harvest Season
Dungeness crab harvest season varies based on the area, with all-year-round legal seasons typically open in estuaries, bays, beaches, tide pools, and jetties.
Ocean Dungeness crabbing follows regional seasons that can vary from state to state. In Oregon, for instance, the season is closed from October to November.
The snow crab season typically starts in April and can last for three to five months until June or September, depending on the geographic area.
Snow crabs live in colder and deeper waters and are typically harder to harvest than Dungeness crabs. For this reason, they are more expensive.
While prices constantly fluctuate, a pound of Dungeness crab currently costs around $11.95.
Newfoundland and Labrador snow crabs cost around $17.05 per pound, while crabs harvested in St. Lawrence are even more expensive, at around $17.15 per pound.
It should be noted, however, that the above are wholesale prices and that the final cost of Dungeness and snow crabs in eateries or supermarkets can be higher.
While taste is subjective, snow crab is typically considered tastier than Dungeness crab.
When cooked, this crab type has snowy white meat with a sweet yet subtly briny flavor reminiscent of seawater. The texture is firm and typically fibrous.
Dungeness crab has a softer body meat texture. Leg meat is firmer but still softer than snow crab meat. The mild but slightly nutty flavor and the softer texture could be less pleasing than the firmer meat of snow crabs.
15. Conservation Status
Is Snow Crab Better Than Dungeness Crab?
Whether snow crabs are better than Dungeness crabs is a matter of taste.
Some people like sweeter flavors and softer textures. Others prefer a savorier taste and a firmer texture.
As far as prices go, snow crabs are more expensive than Dungeness crabs. However, the price difference isn’t excessive.
Since the two crustaceans belong to different families, you may want to try them both and see which is more up your street.