Crab Profile Snow Crab

The snow crab (Chionoecetes opilio) is a type of crab that resembles a spider with its long legs and small round body. Also known as Alaskan snow crab, queen crab, and Opilio crab, this type of crab is found in the cold waters of the Northern Pacific Ocean off the Alaskan coast, the Bering Sea, and also in the Western Atlantic Ocean from Greenland to Northern Maine. This crab is edible and is highly valued for its sweet tasting flesh.

Snow crab can reach a length of 2 feet across when measured from the widest point across their legs and body and can weigh up to 4 pounds. They are found living in on the ocean floor at depths of up to 4,000 feet where they spend their time crawling in the sand or mud looking for prey. The diet of the snow crab consists of invertebrates, other crustaceans (shrimp and other crab), brittle stars, mollusks, and small fish.

As they are members of the spider crab family (Majidae), the snow crab’s appearance is similar to that of a spider as they have four pairs of long legs and one pair of claws. The coloring of a snow crab is usually a light to medium brownish-orange on the top and a cream color on the underside. The body shell (carapace) is a round oval and can be up to 6 inches across in males and 4-5 inches across for females. The legs of snow crabs have small protruding spikes but are not nearly as spiky as the larger king crab’s legs.

The snow crab was brought to the attention of the United States as well as the world thanks to the reality television program, “Deadliest Catch”, which documents the process of fishing for and catching these crab and other species in the frigid and dangerous waters off the coast of Alaska. Snow crab is a commercially important catch for not only Alaska but for Canada, Russia, Japan, and other nations that rely on this crab as an economic resource.

Snow crab is captured using traps known as crab pots. The crab pots are baited using fish meat such as herring. Snow crab are fished for on a seasonal basis and may only be available on a cyclical basis due to natural cycles in reproduction or oceanic variances in temperature or food availability. Only the males are harvested from the traps in an effort to keep this species of crab from declining. Males are easily distinguished from females by their much larger size of both claws and body length.

Snow crab take longer to reach sexual maturity when compared to other crab species such as the dungeness crab. Females will be sexually mature at 6-7 years old and will produce thousands of eggs per year during the breeding season which occurs in the spring months. After mating, the female will carry the eggs with her for up to two years before the eggs are ready to hatch. Female snow crabs also have the ability to store sperm from previous matings in a special sack known as the spermatheca. She is then able to fertilize her eggs using this stored sperm rather than having to mate. 

The meat of snow crab is delicious and can be prepared in a number of ways. Cooked snow crab legs and claws are wonderful when eaten hot or chilled and dipped into garlic butter.