Dungeness Crab Fishery Closes Early to Protect Whales

Why California's Dungeness Crab fishery is closing early and how we can ensure we protect our marine species and support our fishing communities.

Rocky Kistner/NRDC

The Dungeness crab fishery, one of California’s largest commercial fisheries, will be ending their season early this year. This early closure follows a multiple week delay to the 2019 crab season. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) issued these closures to protect migrating whales off California’s Coast.

Why Whales Need Protection from the Fishery 

Each year thousands of whales migrate along the California coast. During the warmer months, whales migrate to cold waters where food is abundant. When the weather becomes colder, whales migrate to warmer water for mating. Unfortunately, the rapid warming of our oceans is disrupting the pattern for many of these migrating whale species. 

Changes in ocean chemistry and temperature; resulting from climate change, are beginning to reduce populations of prey species, such as krill and zooplankton. As prey species dwindle so does whales’ access to food.

Whales are now forced to explore new areas as they travel in search of food, which has brought them closer to the coast and consequently, closer to many fixed-line crab pots. 

Whales are very susceptible to getting entangled in the fixed-line fishing gear used for crab and lobster fishing. In 2018, the West Coast reported 46 cases of entangled whales. Entanglement in these ropes has deadly consequences for whales. Many drown almost immediately as they are pulled below the surface, others suffer for weeks or even years with the ropes chafing into their skin, muscle, and bone. The East Coast suffers from similar entanglement issues and it is currently the number one cause of death for the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Jessica Russo/NRDC

In response to the increased whale activity close to California’s coast and the increased entanglement risk, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) issued a declaration closing the California Dungeness crab fishery south of the Sonoma/Mendocino county line on May 15, 2020.

A Fishery Closure Helps Protect California’s Whales 

This closure will ensure that whales and other marine life off California’s coast will be protected as they migrate through and feed in California’s waters. 

Delayed openings and premature closings of fisheries may be a new reality in the future. Just as marine life must adapt to survive the changes happening within their habitats from climate change, we must prepare and adapt to the changing dynamic of our oceans and fisheries. We need solutions that allow our fishers to make a living while simultaneously protecting our valuable marine species. One way we can achieve this goal is through the implementation of ‘on-demand pop-up gear.’

A Solution Within Reach 

On-demand pop-up fishing gear allows the rope—normally connecting a buoy at the surface to a trap at the ocean floor—to be stored on the ocean floor alongside the trap. By storing fishing gear on the ocean floor while waiting for a trap to attract its intended prey, the time that a line is in the water is greatly reduced. Reducing the number of fishing lines descending from the surface helps minimize the risk of marine mammal entanglement. Transitioning traditional line and buoy systems to on-demand pop-up systems can bring huge benefits to whale populations all along the West Coast. 

This early closure puts significant pressure on California’s fishing communities as they face not only the early end to their fishing season but also the dire impacts of COVID-19 on small-scale fishing communities. With advancements in the availability and practicality of on-demand pop-up gear, fishers will be able to make a living even during periods of high whale activity and subsequent fishery closures. Since there is no rope in the water to entangle whales, fishers that utilize on-demand pop-up gear will be able to fish throughout future closures and provide seafood for their communities and a living for their families. 

To learn more about whale entanglements on the West Coast and how on-demand pop-up gear is a solution within reach, check out my “Whale Entanglement on the West Coast” blog. 

About the Authors

Dillon Hanson-Ahumada

RAY Marine Conservation Diversity Fellow
Blog Post

West Coast whale entanglements are increasing and threatening many whale species off the U.S. coast—but a solution is within reach

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