More Dungeness crab seasons to open on US West Coast on 5 January

A Dungeness crab fishing vessel in Eureka, California.

More areas of California and Oregon will begin their Dungeness crab seasons on 5 January, but some fishermen along the U.S. West Coast will be waiting for at least another few weeks before they can begin crabbing.

Oregon’s commercial Dungeness season will open from Cape Foulweather to Cape Falcon on 31 December after testing showed improved meat yields in the area. Fishermen from Oregon’s border with California to Cape Foulweather began fishing 16 December.

The remainder of the Oregon coast and all of Washington’s coastline will remain closed to commercial Dungeness fishing until at least 15 January, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said in a press release. If meat recovery yields still average below 23 percent during testing on 7 January, the season will be postponed until 1 February.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) will open the commercial Dungeness crab fishery from the Oregon state line to the Sonoma/Mendocino county line on 5 January after facing several previous delays. While that area – fishing zones 1 and 2 – is opening, California’s fishing zones 3, 4, 5, and 6 – stretching from Gualala, California, to the Mexican border – will remain closed “due to elevated numbers of humpback whales resulting in increased entanglement risk,” according to the department. 

The CDFW expects to conduct its next assessment on or around 11 January 2024.

Some California crabbers expressed frustration they will once again miss out on selling their products during the lucrative holiday season. This year marks the fifth year in a row delays have pushed the season opener past Christmas. 

“Every delay is difficult. Right now, I have zero income as a fisherman,” San Francisco-based fisherman Shawn Chen Flading told KQED. “[Dungeness crab] is something people like to splurge on to create a feast, but with the delay, we’ve lost all the holiday markets.”

The delays are partially the result of a 2019 settlement between the CDFW and environmental groups, which sued in 2016 to require the state to take more action in preventing entanglements of whales and turtles. Under the terms of the deal, which also included the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the department must delay the season if whales congregate off California’s coast above threshold minimum numbers.

CDFW Deputy Director of Communications, Education, and Outreach Jordan Traverso said climate change is impacting the timing of whale migrations along the state’s coast, interfering with the historical 15 November start date for the Dungeness season.

“There’s a number of things going on that are making it so that our seasons don’t really match up with the calendar year that they have been expected to for a really long time,” Traverso said. “15 November is a lot warmer than it has been. There are different food sources in the ocean than we were normally expecting.”

Additionally, California’s humpback whale population – labeled as critically endangered under the Endangered Species Act – has undergone a dramatic recovery in recent decades, meaning there are more of them in state waters.

“The whales are doing fantastic. It’s the commercial fishermen that are really becoming extinct,” Flading said. “We, as a commercial fleet, feel very comfortable doing our best practices to limit the interactions and not have any kind of bad effect on the growing population.”

The CDFW has reported 16 confirmed whale entanglements in state waters this year, four of which were linked to commercial Dungeness crab gear. In total, 24 whales have become entangled along the U.S. West Coast in 2023. Environmental nonprofit Oceana is pushing California to convert the fishery to using pop-up traps in order to prevent future entanglement issues.

“We support the decision by the CDFW that balances the financial considerations of fishermen while ensuring that whales off California can safely complete their seasonal migrations,” Oceana Pacific Policy and Communications Manager Ashley Blacow-Draeger said. “El Niño conditions are predicted this spring, which is likely to drive humpback whales closer to shore as they follow their prey – like anchovy – into shallower waters as the whales return to California from winter breeding grounds. This could force an early end to an already compressed fishing season as thousands of vertical fishing lines in the water impede whales from safely swimming and feeding. Pop-up gear can provide fishermen with additional financial opportunities in the spring by offering Californians crab caught in a way that is whale- and sea turtle-safe when waters may otherwise be closed to conventional crab traps.”

A collaborative trial involving volunteer fishermen, enforcement officers, gear manufacturers, and fishery managers will begin in the spring of 2024, but in the meantime, the CDFW is planning to submit an Incidental Take Permit to the federal government that would allow for a small number of humpbacks to be unintentionally killed by commercial crabbing. This would only be allowed if the department can prove the deaths would have a negligible impact on the whale population as a whole, according to KQED.

However, Oceana said NOAA Fisheries is proposing upgrading the state’s commercial Dungeness crab fishery to a Category I fishery, meaning it has a high likelihood of seriously injuring or killing marine mammals. The federal agency is also considering including the Dungeness crab fishery in the scope of a “Take Reduction Team,” which would be charged with developing a plan to reduce serious entanglements as required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.  

According to Oceana, humpback whales become enmeshed in California commercial Dungeness crab gear at a rate that exceeds a three-year average impact score as defined by California’s Risk Assessment Mitigation Program for the fishery, triggering necessary management action.  Additionally, due to commercial fishing, humpback whales on the U.S. West Coast are being killed at a rate of four times their “potential biological removal,” the legal threshold above which there are population-level impacts impeding recovery of the species, Oceana stated.

Elsewhere along the Pacific coast of North America, Alaska's Dungeness season ended in November and British Columbia's season is open year-round. More than 100 million pounds of Dungeness crab was landed in the combined fishery in 2023, up from 67.1 million pounds in 2022 and 56 million pounds in 2021.

Photo courtesy of Chris Haden/Shutterstock


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