Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, November 14, 2017

Contacts:  Kristen Monsell, (510) 844-7137,
Steve Jones, (415) 305-3866,

California's Dungeness Crab Fishery Targeted With Petition, Lawsuit for Harming Whales as Season Opens

Press Availability on Entanglement Tomorrow at Fisherman's Wharf

SAN FRANCISCO— As commercial Dungeness crab season opens Nov. 15 in California, the Center for Biological Diversity is petitioning the federal government to rank the fishery as one of the most dangerous to whales because of increased entanglements in recent years. Last month the Center also sued the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for failing to prevent imperiled whales and sea turtles from getting tangled up in crab gear and injured or killed.

Center attorney Kristen Monsell will be available to discuss the petition and lawsuit at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf tomorrow (Wed., Nov. 15) from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Call Center media specialist Steve Jones at (415) 305-3866 to arrange an interview or meet them at Boudin Bakery & Café, 160 Jefferson Street.  

“Whale entanglements in crab gear have been tolerated by state and federal officials for way too long. Our petition and lawsuit seek reforms to finally reduce these heartbreaking and illegal injuries,” Monsell said. “After watching the number of tangled-up whales break records the last three years, officials need to finally act to protect these magnificent animals.”     

The Center’s petition, cosigned by the Turtle Island Restoration Network, asks the National Marine Fisheries Service to designate the crab fishery as a Category 1 fishery under the Marine Mammal Protection Act because of its rising injuries to humpback, blue, killer and gray whales. Moving the fishery into the top category of concern would prioritize state and federal resources to help protect whales along the West Coast.

The only other Category 1 fisheries in the Pacific Ocean are the Hawaii deep-set longline tuna fishery and California’s drift gillnet fishery for swordfish and thresher sharks. Both fisheries “frequently” injure whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals, the standard for Category 1 listings, whereas California’s crab fishery is currently listed as Category 2 for “occasional interactions.”

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 commercial 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 animals’ flesh, sap their strength and lead to drowning.

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

"Whales and sea turtles should not be dying to put crab cakes on our dinner plates,” said Todd Steiner, executive director of the Turtle Island Restoration Network. "Fishery managers need to enact and enforce safeguards to protect ocean wildlife so we don't become the generation that robbed our children of healthy oceans."

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 come to feed. The California commercial Dungeness crab trap fishery entangles more endangered whales than any other U.S. West Coast fishery.

“Fishery managers can’t keep turning a blind eye to these deadly entanglements,” Monsell said. “Marine conservation laws are meaningless unless they’re actually enforced.”

The Center’s lawsuit seeks common-sense reforms to the fishery, such as restricting the amount of gear in whale hot spots like Monterey Bay or reducing the amount of rope running through the water. The commercial Dungeness crab season opens this week from the Central Coast through Sonoma County and it’s scheduled to open Dec. 1 from Mendocino County north to the Oregon border.

The recovery of humpback whale populations off California has been hindered by entanglements in fishing gear, according to the federal government. One population of endangered humpback whales that feeds off California’s coast numbers barely more than 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.        

Entangled humpback whale

Photo of entangled humpback whale courtesy NOAA. Images are available for media use.

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.

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