California Dungeness Crab Fishery to Remain Open Putting Whales Returning to California Feeding Grounds at Risk - Oceana USA

California Dungeness Crab Fishery to Remain Open Putting Whales Returning to California Feeding Grounds at Risk

Department of Fish and Wildlife Should Close the Fishery Early to Prevent More Entanglements

Press Release Date: March 13, 2024



Ashley Blacow | email: | tel: Ashley Blacow

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) announced it will not be closing the Dungeness crab fishery at this time to prevent entanglements of humpback whales that are now returning to their California feeding areas. Instead, they will maintain the status of quo of a 50% reduction in the number of crab traps that can be deployed off the central and southern coasts [in fishing zones 3-6, south of Sonoma/Mendocino County line] and no gear limitations imposed for northern California [in fishing zones 1 and 2]. The decision not to end the fishery early comes despite the number of whale entanglements over the last few years being three times above that allowed under federal law, and with humpback whales already returning to California waters to feed. Humpback numbers are anticipated to increase in the coming weeks which will put these animals in the path of existing gear that is deployed—risking further entanglements 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:

“California’s Dungeness crab fishery is in a state of crisis due to wildlife entanglements and its future is on the line. Last year, the fishery entangled at least five humpback whales and fatally entangled a critically endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle. The gear should be removed from the water as soon as possible, before we see another year of deadly entanglements. While efforts have been made to reduce risk by closing fishing zones and reducing the amount of gear in the water, fishery managers have not closed the fishery soon enough in the spring months as the whales return to their feeding areas. As a result, this popular and economically important fishery is sadly continuing to entangle endangered humpback whales at an unsustainable rate, far exceeding legal limits. Fishery managers should have closed the fishery sooner to ensure whales and sea turtles have safe passage to freely swim and feed in waters off California. Moving forward, we need stronger regulations to further reduce whale entanglements, including stricter closures to vertical line gear, comprehensive line marking, and new measures to prevent lost fishing gear.”

The decision by CDFW 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 state of California is applying for an Incidental Take Permit under the federal Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act, which is required for the state’s Dungeness crab fishery to be legally compliant. However, in recent years the fishery has injured and killed endangered humpback whales in numbers that preclude it from meeting the requirements to obtain that permit. The California Ocean Protection Council recently approved a major investment in ropeless gear to help provide fishermen with a viable and whale-safe option to continue fishing in the spring when areas are closed to conventional crab fishing gear. If the upcoming large-scale testing of ropeless gear goes well, CDFW could approve it next season as alternative gear so it could be used during closures to conventional gear in spring months. CDFW finalized emergency regulations that went into place on March 8 allowing fishermen more flexibility to remove lost and abandoned fishing gear. CDFW will be conducting its next whale entanglement risk assessment on March 27, 2024, where it will evaluate available information to determine whether to take additional management actions.

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 US 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 being 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 3-year average number of humpback whale entanglements for the California Dungeness crab fishery also exceeds CDFW regulatory triggers for management action. The high number of recent entanglements may prevent California from obtaining a required Incidental Take Permit from NMFS for the Dungeness crab fishery under the Endangered Species Act, which puts the future of the fishery at risk. 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. VisitOceana.orgto learn more.