California Dungeness Crab Fishery to Close Early off Central and Southern Coasts  - Oceana USA

California Dungeness Crab Fishery to Close Early off Central and Southern Coasts 

Northern Coast Depth Restriction Doesn’t Go Far Enough to Protect Whales from Entanglement

Press Release Date: March 28, 2024

Location: Sacramento, CA


Jamie Karnik | email: | tel: Jamie Karnik

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (Department) announced it will close the commercial and recreational Dungeness crab fisheries using vertical line gear off the central and southern coasts (in fishing zones 3-6, south of Sonoma/Mendocino County line) and implement a depth restriction prohibiting fishing in waters deeper than 30 fathoms (180 feet) for northern California (in fishing zones 1 and 2), effective April 8. Oceana supports the Department for ending the season early off the central and southern coasts but remains concerned that leaving the fishery open in the north puts whales returning to feed at risk of entanglement on top of the already excessive numbers reported.  

Dr. Geoff Shester, Oceana’s California campaign director and senior scientist, and a member of the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group, issued the following statement: 

“We commend the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for closing the commercial and recreational Dungeness crab fisheries with vertical line gear off the central and southern coasts to prevent more whale entanglements. However, we strongly recommended the Department end the season early off northern California as well to give whales safe passage as they migrate back to their feeding grounds along the state. Over the last few years, fishery managers underestimated the risk of entanglement and did not close the fishery soon enough in the spring months as whales returned. Sadly, we often see the result of this delayed action many months later when new entanglements are observed and confirmed.  As a result, the number of whale entanglements over the last few years is three times higher than allowed under federal law, putting both the whales and the fishery at risk.  Not closing the fishery statewide likely means we will see more deadly entanglements for the ocean’s gentle giants. As the Department considers revisions to its whale entanglement regulations this spring, we need stricter closures to vertical line gear, comprehensive line marking, new measures to prevent lost fishing gear, and approval of ropeless gear to allow continued fishing in the spring. We commend the Ocean Protection Council and the Department for supporting innovative ropeless gear testing this spring that will allow fishermen to catch crab without the risk of entanglement after the season closes to conventional gear. We urge Bay Area consumers to seek out crab caught with ropeless gear this spring to support local fishermen.” 

The decision by the Department comes on the heels of a new “Whales in Crisis” public service announcement (PSA) campaign Oceana launched featuring actress Cobie Smulders calling on decision-makers to do more to save whales from deadly entanglements in fishing gear off the West Coast. The PSA features a humpback whale captured on film by ocean photographer Alvaro Herrero off the coast of Cabo San Lucas, Baja California entangled in California commercial Dungeness crab gear. While the whale was photographed on Feb 13, 2022, the entanglement occurred in the 2020-2021 season as reported by the Department. The whale swam over 1,000 miles—nearly the distance from Los Angeles to Seattle—dragging the gear for almost a year before it was observed entangled and eventually died from its injuries. Observing entanglements many months after they occur is common, and warrants more pre-emptive action to prevent entanglements, rather than waiting for them to be confirmed. Government estimates also do not account for entanglements that humans never see. 

Last month the California Ocean Protection Council approved a major investment in ropeless gear to help provide a viable and whale-safe option to continue crab fishing in the spring when areas are closed to conventional fishing gear. After the 2023-2024 commercial season concludes off Central California, certain fishermen participating in an Experimental Fishing Permit may begin catching and selling Dungeness crab with ropeless gear.  If this season’s testing of ropeless gear goes well, the Department could approve it next season as alternative gear for use during future closures to vertical lines in the spring. The Department also finalized emergency regulations that went into place on March 8 allowing fishermen more flexibility to remove lost and abandoned fishing gear once the season closes. The next whale entanglement risk assessment focused on the northern fishing zones is tentatively scheduled for April 10, 2024.  

Background: According to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), roughly 75 percent of reported whale entanglements are fatal as whales can drag heavy fishing gear for months, hindering their ability to dive and feed. This can result in malnutrition, starvation, infection to damaged flukes and even severed appendages and drowning. NMFS confirmed reports of 27 distinct whales entangled in U.S. West Coast fishing gear in 2023.  

The population of humpback whales that breeds in Central American/Southern Mexico — one of two humpback populations that migrates to feed off the California coast — is endangered with extinction under the federal Endangered Species Act. According to NMFS, these humpbacks are seriously injured or killed by human activity at a rate of four times their “Potential Biological Removal,” which is the legal threshold above which there are population-level impacts that impede recovery of the species in accordance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act.  

The 2022 NMFS Humpback Whale Stock Assessment indicated the California Dungeness crab fishery is causing serious injury and mortality to the endangered population three times higher than the “Negligible Impact Threshold” for a single fishery. The three-year average number of humpback whale entanglements for the California Dungeness crab fishery also exceeds CDFW regulatory triggers for management action. Excessive entanglements may pose an existential threat to the fishery if entanglement numbers do not improve soon; in recent years the fishery has injured and killed endangered humpback whales in numbers that may prevent California from obtaining a required Incidental Take Permit from NMFS for the Dungeness crab fishery under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which is required for the state’s Dungeness crab fishery to be legally compliant. CDFW has announced it plans to update its regulations on the California Dungeness crab fishery (known as the “Risk Assessment and Mitigation Program”) this spring. The fishery will also be included in the scope of an upcoming federal Take Reduction Team being established in 2025 under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. 

For more information on Oceana’s campaign to prevent entanglements off the U.S. West Coast visit   

The CDFW’s map of Dungeness crab fishing zones is available here


Oceana is the largest international advocacy organization dedicated solely to ocean conservation. Oceana is rebuilding abundant and biodiverse oceans by winning science-based policies in countries that control one-quarter of the world’s wild fish catch. With more than 300 victories that stop overfishing, habitat destruction, oil and plastic pollution, and the killing of threatened species like turtles, whales, and sharks, Oceana’s campaigns are delivering results. A restored ocean means that 1 billion people can enjoy a healthy seafood meal, every day, forever. Together, we can save the oceans and help feed the world. Visit to learn more.