California Forum

Whale entanglements will continue after crab season unless Sacramento acts

Kristen Monsell
Kristen Monsell

Dungeness crab season ended June 30 in California on a grim note. Video shows a blue whale – the largest creature on the planet – helplessly entangled in fishing line and exhausted from towing heavy commercial crab traps. Sadly, this heartbreaking sight has become too common, although it’s usually humpbacks and gray whales getting entangled.

This problem isn’t likely to go away with the end of crab season, because thousands of lost traps litter whale feeding and migration routes – a problem that requires immediate legislative action to address. Last year, entanglement reports continued throughout the summer and peaked with 11 cases in September, including another blue whale. In all, 33 whales were reported entangled between July and November.

There have been a steadily increasing number of reported whale entanglements off the West Coast over the last three years, with crab gear being the biggest known culprit. There were 30 whales entangled off the West Coast in 2014, up from an average of eight per year over the last decade.

Following disclosure of this record-breaking number of entanglements, I joined a working group with state and federal officials and Dungeness crab fishermen to develop solutions. But the problem continues to grow. There were 61 reported entanglements last year and 40 so far this year, most of them since the crab season’s late start at the end of March.

Nobody wants to see whales die a slow and painful death from heavy lines that cut into their flesh and sap their energy – not the crabbers who are trying to make a living and not state or federal officials who must protect whales and ensure that fishing is sustainable. Yet I’ve begun to conclude that none of them are treating this serious problem with the sense of urgency it deserves.

The state has tried asking fishermen to avoid whale hotspots and abide by the best practices guide developed by the working group, but these voluntary measures are not enough to save the whales.

If enacted, Senate Bill 1287 would create a long-overdue system for retrieving lost crab traps from the ocean during the offseason, but it’s not enough, considering it probably wouldn’t be implemented until after the next crab season.

I’m calling on the state and the working group that I’m a part of along with the crabbers and government officials who have pledged to address this problem to find a real solution now, before the next season starts in November.

I can’t bear to see more whales suffering and dying while we debate this issue and possible remedies. Statements of concern just aren’t cutting it anymore. We need actions to match the words – one way or another.

Kristen Monsell is an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity and a member of the Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group. Contact her at