In a settlement over whale entanglement, California’s Dungeness crab fishermen lose the spring season

The worst-case scenario has been averted — no multiyear closure of California’s Dungeness crab fishery. But fishermen will feel the sting for years to come after a settlement in a lawsuit over whale and sea turtle entanglements has closed spring crabbing in the state for the foreseeable future. And the fishermen are not happy.

This story was first published in the July issue of National Fisherman. Subscribe today for digital and print access.

“The settlement is going to be extremely painful and extremely difficult to deal with,” said Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, noting that millions of dollars in product will be left in the water this year. “But this was the best possible deal that was acceptable to all parties.”

At issue is a 2017 lawsuit in federal court by the Oakland, Calif.-based Center for Biological Diversity that argued the state of California was in violation of the Endangered Species Act after a three-year spike in whale entanglements in Dungeness crab fishing gear from 2014 to 2017.

The lawsuit sought to force the state of California to obtain a federal incidental take permit for whales and turtles — a process that takes around three years to implement. It would have been possible for the fishery to remain closed during the intervening years, although the CBD says it never sought an indefinite closure through litigation.

In 2015, 50 whales, including humpback, gray and blue whales, were confirmed to have become entangled in fishing gear, up from an average of less than 10 annual entanglements in the 15 years prior. In 2016, the number of entanglements remained high at 48 confirmed whale entanglements. Numbers in 2017 were down, but still above historical norms, with 31 confirmed entanglements on the West Coast.

A preliminary report for 2018 from NOAA stated there were 45 confirmed whale entanglements. Seven of the 2018 entanglements were tied to California Dungeness crab gear.

Many Dungeness crab fishermen are quick to point out that, while a problem they are working hard to resolve, the majority of confirmed entanglements do not involve crab gear.

“Dungeness crab fishermen have been singled out,” said Benjamin Platt, 57, a fisherman out of Crescent City and Bodega Bay. “The shipping industry kills more than a dozen whales a year by their own admission, but where’s the outrage there?”

When whale entanglements first spiked, a group of diverse stakeholders convened to create the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group in September 2015. The working group consists of commercial fishermen, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, state and federal agencies, and environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity.

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Nick Rahaim is a writer and commercial fisherman based in Monterey, Calif. Check out his website,, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @nrahaim.

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