Dungeness Crab Fishing Season Will Open off Central California Coast - Oceana USA

Dungeness Crab Fishing Season Will Open off Central California Coast

50% Reduction in Allowable Crab Traps Due to High Numbers of Entangled Whales and Sea Turtles

Press Release Date: January 11, 2024



Ashley Blacow | email: ablacow@oceana.org | tel: Ashley Blacow

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) announced the commercial Dungeness crab fishing season will start on January 18 off the central and southern California coasts [in fishing zones 3-6, south of Sonoma/Mendocino County line] with a 50% reduction in the number of crab traps that can be deployed. Following multiple delays to the season opener, the gear limitations are a direct result of high numbers of entangled whales, more action needed to address lost gear, and a shift in the location of crabs which are concentrated off the central coast this year. There are no gear limitations imposed for northern California (in fishing zones 1 and 2) where the commercial season commenced on January 5. CDFW will also lift the prohibition on recreational crab traps in zones 3 and 4 off the Central Coast.

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. Sadly, this popular and economically important fishery has injured and killed endangered humpback whales at an unsustainable rate that may impede recovery of the species. Additionally, last month a critically endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle was entangled and drowned in commercial gear that was lost in a previous fishing season — a blow to the population already in peril. We support the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s actions in response to this state of emergency to reduce the number of fishing lines in the water in addition to the extended season delay over the past two months to provide whales with safe passage. Any further entanglements at this point could result in even more devastating fishery closures and forego future fishing opportunities. Going forward, new alternative fishing gear — known as “pop-up gear” — can help save whales and help secure a future for the fishery by providing fishers with a viable and whale-safe way to continue fishing when waters may otherwise be closed to conventional crab traps. It’s urgent for the state to allocate funding now to get this new technology into the hands of fishers who want to test it this spring. If the tests go well, this gear could be authorized next season. Additionally, we must further protect whales, sea turtles, and fishermen’s investments with stronger measures to prevent and remove lost crab gear.”

This 50% gear reduction is anticipated to remain in effect throughout the fishing season to minimize entanglement risk and provide stability for business planning. This would be the first time a gear reduction has remained in place throughout an entire fishing season.


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. NOAA reports 27 whales were confirmed entangled in fishing gear off the West Coast in 2023. Most recently, this includes a humpback whale reported entangled off Banderas Bay, Mexico on December 20, 2023, and confirmed to be in California commercial Dungeness crab fishing gear set near Crescent City last season, as well as a critically endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtle observed entangled and killed in November in derelict California commercial Dungeness crab gear lost off the Farallon Islands two seasons ago.

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 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 U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act. The high number of recent entanglements may prevent California from obtaining a required Incidental Take Permit for the Dungeness crab fishery under the Endangered Species Act, which puts the future of the fishery at risk.

Due to the number of entanglements, NMFS is proposing to upgrade the California commercial Dungeness crab fishery to a Category I fishery— a designation reserved for fisheries that have a frequent likelihood of seriously injuring or killing marine mammals. The federal agency is also considering including the Dungeness crab fishery in the scope of a new “Take Reduction Team” that would develop a plan to swiftly reduce serious injury and death of whales from entanglement as required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.  

Pop-up gear is a successful way to catch crab in a way that is whale and sea turtle safe. The gear stores the rope and buoy with a string of traps connected by a groundline on the seafloor until fishermen are ready to retrieve the gear. This removes the entanglement risk posed by conventional gear where vertical fishing lines are untended in the water for up to four days. Many fishers have signed up to test this gear under a state-issued Experimental Fishing Permit but are awaiting a decision about whether and when the state will provide a grant from an existing entanglement reduction fund to support the gear.

For more information on Oceana’s campaign to prevent entanglements off the U.S. West Coast visit www.oceana.org/whalesafeoceans  

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 275 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 Oceana.org to learn more.