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Dungeness Crab Season Ended Early This Year To Protect Whales in California: Everything You Need To Know

a crab on a table

While it’s taken many years, marine mammal advocates are finally seeing a change in California’s fishing regulations. State officials have called off Dungeness crab season in California to protect humpback whales who migrate to the California coast in the spring to feed on krill and small fish. The announcement will impact both recreational and commercial crab harvesting. Here’s everything you need to know.

Dungeness Crab Season in California

Fishermen have been harvesting Dungeness crab off the Pacific coast of North America since the mid-1800s. The fishing season runs from the beginning of November until the end of July. These crabs grow six to seven inches wide and comprise one of the four most popular types of crab eaten worldwide.

The Dungeness crab industry is very profitable, taking in anywhere from $30 to $80 million a year.  Fishermen usually experience the best catches early in the season, from December to January. Even though this industry has existed for over a hundred years, researchers and fishermen note that Dungeness crab populations seem stable.

Whale Entanglement Concerns

Fishermen use vertical-line fishing equipment to harvest Dungeness crabs. This gear includes a heavy metal trap on the ocean floor with a thick fishing line stretching hundreds of feet to the water’s surface. In 2016, a record high of 19 humpback whales became entangled in these fishing lines. Marine mammal entanglement is a severe concern for whale conservation experts.

When whales get entangled in Dungeness crab trap fishing lines, they drag the trap around for months, leading to injury, exhaustion, starvation, and drowning. Other animals that get tangled in the trap lines include: 

Occasionally, fishermen lose their traps and nets in the sea. Experts refer to the impact of this lost equipment as “ghost fishing” because the traps and nets are impossible to see and continue to threaten wildlife for years. 

animal on the water

California’s Reason & Response to Closure

The number of humpback whales coming to the California coast has increased over the years as these animals’ populations rebound with the help of conservation efforts. California officials have been monitoring humpback whales and decided to close the Dungeness crab season early to protect these vulnerable animals. This is the second year in a row that the state has ended the season in spring instead of allowing fishermen to harvest crabs well into July.

People who monitor this industry are not surprised by the early closure because it may become the new normal. As climate change affects whale migration patterns, humpbacks will probably continue appearing in California waters during the Dungeness crab season.

The Impact on the Seafood Industry & Fisherman

The public primarily supports measures to protect whales, but Californians are sympathetic to the impact on fishermen. When the Dungeness crab season is shorter than usual, fishermen make less money and may face hardship for the rest of the year. Some people may leave the industry altogether, which might cause labor shortages.

Conservation Efforts & the Future

Climate change has dramatically impacted the Dungeness crab industry and whale migration. Looking to the future, the government will have to find a way to support safer fishing techniques that don’t endanger marine life.

One of these options is pop-up fishing gear, ropeless traps that fishermen can recall using a phone app. While this equipment can cost thousands of dollars, it would allow fishermen to work alongside whale conservationists instead of against them.

Seeing humpback whales in their natural habitat is an awe-inspiring experience. Book a whale-watching trip from San Diego today to see these incredible animals off the California coast.