The Bay Area Is Skipping Dungeness Crab This Thanksgiving to Protect the Whales

Illustration for article titled The Bay Area Is Skipping Dungeness Crab This Thanksgiving to Protect the Whales
Photo: Getty

The season for stuffing our faces has arrived, but one item will notably not be on the table this Thanksgiving. In California’s Bay Area, commercial crabbers won’t be bringing in any Dungeness crab—a traditional treat on this gluttonous holiday—until December 15. Why? The whales, man.


The California Department of Fish and Wildlife announced the delay last week after an aerial survey in Greater Farallones and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuaries revealed endangered humpback whales in the area. Fishing equipment, including crab pots, poses a threat to humpbacks as well as the endangered blue whale. These large marine mammals can get tangled in the ropes attached to the gear, which needs to travel to the ocean floor to reach crabs.

“Under federal law, it is illegal to harm (defined as ‘take’) endangered species,” wrote Ryan Bartling, a senior environmental scientist at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, in an email to Earther. “It is crucial that the fishing industry help work to solve the issue to ensure a robust Dungeness crab fishery while reducing the number of whale entanglements.”

The whales can get injured, but they can also suffer fatigue if any of the equipment gets stuck to them. Just last week, a rescue team freed a 35-foot-long humpback whale from 900 feet of rope and six fishing traps. Not all whales are so lucky, though. A drone captured the image of a dead humpback whale with fishing gear wrapped around its tail off the coast of South Africa in October. In Scotland earlier this year, scientists found that a young humpback whale had died after being entangled in gear for potentially months, which likely kept it from eating properly until it grew weak, drowned, and died.

“California officials made the right call based on the presence of humpback whales and their promise to protect these whales from deadly entanglements,” said Kristen Monsell, legal director of the Center of Biological Diversity’s oceans program, in an online statement after the announcement. “Simply put, it just didn’t make sense to allow thousands of crab lines to be dropped into the water where there are so many whales in the area. Thanksgiving crab feasts shouldn’t come with a side of dead whales.”

This is the reality. In San Francisco, Bodega Bay, and Half Moon Bay, crabbers are trying to work with the state to come up with a solution. After all, they don’t want to harm these gentle giants, but they gotta make a living. It’s a difficult situation to figure out. And crabbers are struggling. Not just because of the threat they pose to whales, but also because of the threat climate change poses to the industry at large. There’s concern that warming waters are pushing krill (aka whale food) closer to shore, reports the Guardian, so whales are coming closer to the waters where fishermen typically drop their traps.


The crabbing industry has been hit hard by climate change. Warm waters have caused dangerous toxins to build in crabs and shut down crabbing season in recent years. That led Pacific crabbers to become the first major industry to sue Big Oil last year. Fossil fuel giants like Exxon knew about climate change decades ago and yet continued to deny it existed. The crabbers want justice, dammit! And if they could file a case, the whales probably would, too.

“It’s important to balance the fact that this is a learning experience for the industry and regulators with the high stakes issues surrounding the [Endangered Species Act],” said Noah Oppenheim, the executive director for the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, the plaintiff behind this lawsuit, in an email to Earther. “Folks are giving it their best.”


Unfortunately, litigation is unlikely to help solve the entanglement issue. The industry is working with other stakeholders like Calfornia on innovative solutions, such as digital ropeless fishing systems that release ropes after they receive a signal to return to the surface. The technology still needs some work, however, to make sure traps aren’t lost. And it needs to become affordable.

This tech has yet to reach even the tech-obsessed Bay Area, so Thanksgiving guests will have to wait for their traditional Dungeness crab. They can only hope that the whales leave in time for Christmas. Happy eating!


Yessenia Funes is climate editor at Atmos Magazine. She loves Earther forever.



Now if we could just get the fishers who work the Gulf of St. Lawrence to adopt this attitude a bit more consistently, what’s left of the Atlantic Right Whale population might have more of a chance. We’re down to ~400 now, and every year carcasses entangled in fishing gear wash ashore.