Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, October 3, 2017

Contact: Kristen Monsell, (510) 844-7137,

Lawsuit Targets California's Dungeness Crab Fishery for Harming Endangered Whales, Sea Turtles

Wildlife Agency Sued Over Record-breaking Whale Entanglements

SAN FRANCISCO— The Center for Biological Diversity sued the California Department of Fish and Wildlife today over the commercial Dungeness crab fishery’s skyrocketing entanglements of imperiled whales and sea turtles.

At least 19 humpback whales, two blue whales and one leatherback sea turtle — all protected by the Endangered Species Act — were found tangled up in crab gear off the West Coast last year. Entanglements in ropes connected to heavy commercial Dungeness crab traps cause injuries and death as the ropes cut into the whales’ flesh, sap their strength and lead to drowning.

“Dungeness crab dinners shouldn’t come with a side of whale. These entanglements are heartbreaking, illegal and way too common,” said Kristen Monsell, a senior attorney with the Center. “California officials can’t let this minefield of crab traps continue to slaughter endangered whales and sea turtles.”

Each entanglement of a humpback whale, blue whale or leatherback sea turtle violates the federal Endangered Species Act. The department is liable for causing these unlawful entanglements because it authorizes and manages operation of the fishery.

The lawsuit seeks common-sense reforms to the fishery such as restricting the amount of gear in whale hotspots like Monterey Bay and reducing the amount of rope running through the water.

West Coast whale entanglements have broken records each of the past three years. There were 71 reported whale entanglements last year, up from 62 in 2015 and 30 in 2014. Before that, whale entanglement reports averaged fewer than 10 per year.

Many of last year’s entanglements were clustered around the biologically rich Monterey Bay, where migrating whales came to feed. The California commercial Dungeness crab trap fishery entangles more endangered whales and sea turtles than any other U.S. West Coast fishery.

Whales can drag fishing gear for hundreds of miles and often die from their entanglement injuries. In one particularly gruesome example, a severed humpback whale tail was found with two sets of Dungeness crab ropes and buoys attached. In another, rope from commercial Dungeness crab gear cut into the tissue of one humpback whale so deeply that the rope was barely visible.

“Ropes wrapped around humpbacks’ heads, flippers and tails can tighten as they swim and may never come loose,” Monsell said. “These tragic entanglements are happening in record-breaking numbers. That’s why we’ve had to sue to force California officials to finally take their responsibilities seriously.”   

The recovery of humpback whales off California has been hindered by fishing gear entanglements, according to the federal government. One population of endangered humpback whales that feeds off California’s coast numbers just over 400 individuals, meaning any death or injury from entanglement could hurt the entire population. Eliminating entanglement in fishing gear is also the number one action the federal government says is needed to recover critically endangered Pacific leatherback sea turtles.        

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.5 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

More press releases