Bay Nature magazineSpring 2023

Climate Change

As Whale Populations Grow, Dungeness Crabbers Foresee Their Own Demise

Traffic at sea: Humpback whales are inhabiting waters off California in steadily rising numbers, and the Dungeness crab fishery must make room.

March 22, 2023
Lunge feeding humpback whales in Monterey Bay, CA taken September 24, 2015. (Photo by Joe Platko)

For seven hours, we stare at a gray, choppy ocean. An occasional pelagic bird soars overhead, but more than anything else there is just ocean. What the 20 passengers aboard the Amigo want to see are the humpback whales—acrobats of the sea longer than a school bus and as heavy as five or six elephants—that hang out along California’s coast from spring to fall feeding on krill and anchovy. 

Weepy fog keeps us shivering. A few crumple into seasick heaps. But as the boat heads back to San Francisco, luck changes. 

“Off to the right, 11 o’clock,” the tour guide says, triggering a stampede to one side of the boat. Within moments, maybe 20 feet from where we fumble with cellphones, a humpback emerges, blows an audible poof of mist, and dives back below, as fluid as cursive. We gasp at its dark gray heft, knobby dorsal fin, and its fluke that swoops up then softly lowers beneath the water. The past seven hours dissolve, giving way to the thrill of an unseen world revealing its wonder. 

When the Endangered Species Act (ESA) went into effect 50 years ago, humpback whales were included on a list of animals facing extinction, having been depleted largely due to commercial whaling, which ceased in 1986. A few years later, the National Marine Fisheries Service estimated about 500 humpback whales lived off the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington. As of 2022, that number had soared to nearly 5,000. A conservation success, but one that came with an increase in other conflicts with humans: ship strikes, underwater noise pollution, and, in recent years, a spike in the number of whales entangled in fishing gear. 

An entangled humpback whale off the California Coast. Report entangled whales to the NOAA Fisheries hotline at 877-767-9425. (Photo by NOAA Fisheries West Coast via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

When humpbacks migrate to feed along California, they can encounter ropes that connect commercial Dungeness crab traps or “pots” on the ocean floor to surface buoys. A whale’s flukes and fins can become wrapped and tangled in those so-called “vertical lines.” 

According to a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a marine heat wave that spanned from 2014 through 2016 shifted whale migration patterns, and whale entanglements in West Coast waters increased 400 percent as compared to 30 years earlier. Between 2000 and 2013, fewer than 10 humpback whale entanglements were confirmed annually. In 2016, there were a historic 42 confirmed humpback entanglements, though as many as 54 were reported. But because the two groups or “distinct populations” of humpbacks that visit California are still protected under the ESA, each entanglement violates both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which specifies that whale populations must remain a healthy size that sustains their role in the marine ecosystem.

Humpbacks entangled in ropes and buoys from crab pots can drag the gear for hundreds of miles. (Photo by NOAA, photo obtained under MMHSRP permit # 932-1905)

Though many types of fisheries use gear that entangle different species of whales,  California’s commercial Dungeness crab fishery is known to have caused 28 percent of all humpback entanglements in waters off the state’s coast between 2014 and 2022 and 23 percent of accidents involving humpbacks along the entire West Coast in those eight years. The percentages could be higher though when factoring in entanglements with commercial gear that was never definitively identified. Entanglements can lead to starvation, injury, or a painful, slow death in which ropes snarled around flukes and fins can tighten and eventually sever those body parts or cause infection. 

“Everybody loves whales, and fishermen do too. We’re not trying to kill them,” says John Barnett, captain of the Amigo, the charter boat carrying us whale watchers. Barnett’s also been a commercial crab fisherman for 22 years. “We’re in this fight where we have to try and fish around the whales because they’re not going anywhere.” 

California commercial crab traps are stacked and ready for the season opener. More than 100,000 traps are in California waters. (Photo courtesy of the California Fish and Wildlife Department)

In an effort to address the problem, in 2023 California will apply for a federal permit to make it legal for the commercial Dungeness crab fishery to entangle or “take” a limited number of protected whales. In that application the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has to deliver a plan to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), a part of NOAA, that details how California crabbers can coexist with humpbacks. The review process is expected to take years, especially if NMFS, the fishery, and environmental groups can’t agree on how to limit interactions. Dan Lawson, a fisheries biologist with NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region, says until the federal permit is secured or crabbers completely stop entangling protected animals, California “will be perpetually open to litigation” for any entanglements. This has California’s iconic and highly profitable fishery, which routinely earns crabbers $80 million for a season’s catch, facing an uncertain future that will likely entail a lot less fishing.

“We’re done,” one longtime San Francisco crabber told me. “Maybe not this year, but we’re done.”

Behind the wheel of his charter boat, Barnett steers with one hand and picks up his pinging phone with the other. It’s another message from a crabber “all worked up” that the lingering presence of humpback whales throughout California is once again delaying the traditional November 15 opening of Dungeness crab season. Barnett says he’s hearing from a number of fellow crabbers who are wondering “when the next paycheck is coming.” 

With a mess of graying curls and a humble presence, Barnett doesn’t engage in a lot of the commercial crabbing fleet’s political back-and-forth. He accepts that humpbacks hold an advantage even beyond ESA protection. Many people will choose to endure hours of moody, uneventful seas in the hopes of finding whales; only crabbers do the same for Dungeness crab. 

Humpbacks, found in all the world’s oceans, are baleen whales that load up on food in high-latitude regions in the spring and summer and, come winter, migrate to tropical and subtropical breeding grounds. Calves leave their mothers at around one year of age, and males attract mates by singing a song on repeat for hours. Humpbacks delight whale watchers with aerial displays and flipper slapping and are known to sometimes swim right up to boats. A crew member on a Morro Bay crab vessel told me that one day as he was handling gear, he saw what he thought was a boulder surfacing from the sea just a few feet away, only to realize he was staring into the dark eye of a humpback. 

That curious nature may make them more susceptible to entanglement, according to John Calambokidis, a senior research biologist with Cascadia Research Collective who has been studying whales for 40 years and is widely regarded as the humpback expert. 

Whale entanglements have occurred all over the world for decades. The “blob,” however, kicked off a cascade of events that ended with record whale entanglements off California’s coast. Also known as the northeast Pacific marine heat wave of 2014–2016, it resulted in unusually warm water that altered California’s typically cool, productive coastal upwelling ecosystem. Research indicates that marine heat waves are becoming more common with climate change.

The warmer water encouraged a toxic algal bloom in the Pacific that resulted in the persistence of domoic acid, a neurotoxin that can harm marine wildlife and can poison shellfish. The Dungeness crab fishery season, which normally runs from mid-November to the end of June depending on the region, sustained an unprecedented delay and fishermen missed out on the lucrative crab blitz of Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and Chinese New Year. The delay finally ended in March 2016. 

Scientists and crabbers knew humpbacks would be heading for California from their breeding grounds in Mexico and Central America, a journey that can take just a couple of weeks. What wasn’t apparent yet was that the marine heat wave was pushing humpbacks into crabbing territory. 

Clockwise from top left: Karin Forney, John Calambokidis, Geoff Shester, Catherine Kilduff, Ryan Bartling, Rob Bonta, Kathi George. (Photo by Karin Forney, Calambokidis, Geoff Shester, Catherine Kilduff, Ryan Bartling, © 2023 DOJ, Kathi George).

“Humpbacks are unique in that they could feed on krill or small baitfish,” says Kathi George, director of field operations and response for The Marine Mammal Center. “When they’re feeding on krill, they are further offshore, and when they’re feeding on baitfish, they’re closer to shore. During the marine heat wave there wasn’t strong upwelling, and krill was not as abundant at that time. So the whales came to where the food was, which was inshore.” 

According to NOAA, during the “blob” years 300 whales could be seen in Monterey Bay at one time. George likens the 2015–2016 season to “the perfect storm.” Not only were there more whales and more whales feeding near fishing grounds, but in the years building up to the marine heat wave, humpback whale distribution along the coast became less predictable.  

For decades, whale migration and crabbing operated as a tag team. Whales typically left for their breeding grounds in November, when crab season opened, and returned in spring, once most of the fishing had concluded. “We were lucky that the timing was complementary rather than overlapping,” says Karin Forney, research biologist with NOAA Fisheries. 

But a recent study that analyzed more than 20 years of whale migration patterns found humpbacks and blue whales arriving in California’s feeding grounds off the Farallon Islands as much as 100 days earlier in the spring than over the last decade, and their departing times have stayed relatively the same, widening the window for exposure to gear. Jaime Jahncke, a biologist with Point Blue Conservation Science who coauthored the study, says researchers are still determining what’s behind the shift. “[Whales] are going back to places they were exterminated from,” he says. “And as climate changes, the cues for migration time may also be changing and happening early.” 

Another phenomenon researchers have documented, Calambokidis says, is whales skipping their southward migration—most likely adults who aren’t breeding and juveniles too young to reproduce. A 2022 study Calambokidis coauthored found juveniles are more likely to become entangled than adult animals are. 

Dick Ogg has been crabbing commercially in Northern California for at least two decades. (Photo by Robert Houser)

“We see whales every time we go,” says fisherman Dick Ogg. “Sometimes 20 or 30.” Ogg has been fishing commercially in Northern California for more than 20 years. Soft-spoken and silver-haired, Ogg will find an excuse to get on his boat, Karen Jeanne, even when he’s not fishing, just to feel the current beneath his feet. ​​

Back in late March 2016, crabbers like Ogg didn’t have a lot of insight into where whales were feeding, and the CDFW did not yet have the authority to delay or close a crabbing season due to an abundance of whales, so when the domoic acid cleared, crabbers were given the green light. 

The crab season opener is typically pure adrenaline and competition, a so-called “derby fishery.” That first haul is the largest, and crabbers race out on the water to set traps and catch as much as possible. On top of the late opening, Dungeness crabs typically start molting in spring and buyers don’t want them in that stage. “The problem is nobody had any money for the longest time,” says Ogg. “We’re not talking about a week or two weeks; we’re talking months without income.” 

And so in March, crabbers left their ports and one by one tossed pots into the sea, ropes unfurling their way to the surface. 

Calfornia’s commercial fishing industry hauls in millions of pounds of Dungeness crab annually. (Photo by WhatsAllThisThen via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0))

Things did not go well. 

In 2016, tags on fishing gear confirmed that the California commercial Dungeness crab fishery entangled 22 ESA-listed animals, including 19 humpback whales, and along the entire western coast there was a record of 54 humpback entanglements. (The total rises to 71 when you tally all species of whales.) Also, only an estimated 10 percent of entanglements are located or reported, which creates an undercount of incidents and an unclear picture of what happens once the animals are entangled. Perhaps they free themselves and carry on with only scars, or, as research suggests, an entanglement could impact a female’s ability to reproduce.

“Most of the entanglement reports we get are in the Monterey Bay area, because there’s a lot of eyes on the water down there,” says George, in reference to whale-watching groups. However, that doesn’t mean the entanglement occurred in Monterey Bay, as whales can drag gear for hundreds of miles. 

As part of NOAA’s Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program, George disentangles whales, a dangerous, hours-long mission that starts with locating the whale, hooking the entanglement with a pole, and allowing the whale to drag the small rescue boat as crew members assess the extent of the entanglement—a process commercial whalers dubbed a “Nantucket sleigh ride”—before finally cutting the animal free. 

George was overwhelmed by the sheer number and frequency of entanglements in 2016. She and her team successfully disentangled one humpback, while a couple others got away. It motivated her to join the California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Working Group, an independent body of commercial and recreational fishermen, environmental organization representatives, state and federal agencies, and others with the focus of reducing the risk of entanglement. 

In 2016, the group released a best practices fishing guide that crabbers readily adopted. Among other things, it encouraged tightening up any loose vertical lines. “I describe it like when you’re swimming through kelp, and it’s kind of loosely flowing around, if you bump into it when you’re scuba diving it wraps around you,” George explains. “But if that is taut and you hit it, you bounce right off.” 

A year after the blob, the working group’s progress stalled as it became clear that further action would entail economic losses for the fleet. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), which originally was in the working group, filed a lawsuit against CDFW director Chuck Bonham, alleging poor management of the commercial crab fishery and citing the harm entanglements were inflicting on ESA-protected animals, including the leatherback sea turtle, which is vulnerable to extinction. The lawsuit led to new regulations and demands on the fishery, including closure when too many entanglements occur.  “We all knew this was a slam-dunk lawsuit,” says Geoff Shester, California campaign director and senior scientist at Oceana, a nonprofit conservation group. “You can’t kill an endangered species without a permit.” 

Trained teams work to disentangle whales from crabbing gear. (Photo by NOAA Fisheries/Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Catherine Kilduff, a CBD senior attorney, says that while humpbacks are increasing at about 7 to 8 percent every year as a species, several years ago NMFS listed 14 distinct populations, some of which are considered endangered or threatened, including the two distinct populations that breed in Mexico and Central America. At the time that CBD filed its lawsuit, an estimated 411 Central American humpbacks fed in waters off the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington. “So that also added to the urgency,” says Kilduff. (The Mexico population that visits the same states stands at roughly 5,000 animals and is considered threatened, not endangered.) 

In January 2023, NMFS released a draft of an updated population count showing close to 1,500 Central American humpbacks. While the numbers are bigger, Kilduff says, the population’s upward trend is slower than other distinct humpback groups. According to the NMFS population report, human activity, including entanglements and ship strikes, will have to cause fewer than three deaths per year to keep the population steadily growing. And that, says Kilduff, “seems like a difficult number to get to.” (In the San Francisco Bay region alone, models estimate that seven humpback whales are killed every year by vessel strikes.)

What’s transpired since the lawsuit has left crabbers feeling like a small subset of whales out of Central America has them “held captive,” says Ogg.

In 2018, the state legislature gave CDFW greater authority to manage the crab fishery and hired two new “whale safe fisheries” staff. To settle the lawsuit, the state implemented a Risk Assessment and Mitigation Program (RAMP) that aims to reduce overlap between whales and crab gear. 

Geoff Shester, who sits on the working group, says when CBD filed the lawsuit he didn’t support that decision because the working group was supposed to act collaboratively, not litigiously, and CBD was ultimately asked to leave the group. However, his position has changed, he says, because the litigation “was the catalyst to get some protections in place,” protections that have largely entailed closing the fishery and delaying the opening by weeks or months, particularly in parts of the state where whales tend to congregate. 

Going into this season, though, the fishery has averaged slightly more entanglements than RAMP’s three-year limit. Even one entanglement this spring might force the state to shut down the season early or, more critically, potentially put into question California’s ability to protect whales during crabbing season. Without that assurance, NMFS could delay approval of the federal permit that would help the state avoid further litigation over ESA violations. 

Issued by NMFS, an “incidental take permit” establishes a conservation plan to minimize risks to humpbacks, while allowing for a limited number of entanglements over a fixed period of time, permission no state fishery has ever been granted. (Oregon and Washington are also applying for one.) “The federal government is going to evaluate the RAMP program and see if it passes muster for a permit,” says Kilduff.

Oceana’s Shester says the fishery is currently existing in a “danger zone,” one in which more entanglements will likely force CDFW to keep revising RAMP and structure more guidelines about when, where, and how the fleet operates. Bob Maharry, a San Francisco crabber who’s been fishing for nearly 50 years, believes the Bay Area fleet will inevitably shrink, just a few guys “bing-banging around, a token fishery,” he says. “You’re not going to raise a family or pay your house off on that.”

Crabs in pots. (Screenshot from video by PK Yi)

Many crabbers choose this life for its independence and self-accountability. No daily meetings; no overlords dictating how to do their job. Both success and failure rests on only them, plus a few deckhands. RAMP is chipping away at that lifestyle. (Or in the words of Maharry, “It’s a feeling of what the f**k just happened here? This is a 100-year-old fishery.”)

Every time a whale is entangled, the fishery is penalized, even when the gear is unidentified but looks like commercial Dungeness gear—though the penalty is greater if the entanglement is confirmed to have involved the fishery’s commercial gear. Once a certain entanglement threshold is reached in a season, CDFW moves to shut it down early statewide, as has happened the last three years. 

The commercial crabbing fleet is held accountable for unknown gear because it’s been linked to a majority of entanglements in California and it has the most gear in the ocean. “It’s one of the largest (fisheries) we have,” says Ryan Bartling, an environmental scientist with CDFW. “When the full fleet is operating with all the permits you have well over 100,000 traps out there.” (CDFW is working on more distinctive rope markings in hopes of cutting down on unidentified entanglements.)

Over nine months, I interviewed several people involved in working on the entanglement issue and attended commercial crab-related hearings and meetings. I heard repeatedly from members of the fleet, scientists, and those working in conservation how crabbers want to protect whales. After 2016, many recall all parties wanting to find a path that both saves whales and keeps the fishery profitable.

Cracks emerged with the lawsuit, and divisions have only deepened as some environmental organizations campaign for ropeless or “pop-up” gear as the entanglement solution. Ropeless fishing gear eliminates the vertical line that runs through the water column. Instead, the line remains coiled within the pot and is released either by use of timers or another trigger. 

The gear has shown promise in the South—where black-sea-bass fishermen were able to return to 15,000 square miles of fishing grounds previously closed in order to protect the endangered North Atlantic right whale—as well as in other fisheries around the world. But the technology is still in development, and there are concerns about the expense—one trap can cost $720 to $2,500 per crab pot. More than anything, though, each fishery operates differently: what works in one might not in another. Dungeness crabbers work fast, relying on a near-manic efficiency. “We have to put volume on the boat as quickly as possible and make money as quickly as possible,” Ogg says.

In about one minute, his crew can hoist up a crab pot from the ocean floor, empty the crab, reload bait, and dump it in the water. By his estimate, current available pop-up gear could add up to 11 hours of extra work per haul, with no extra compensation for that time. And that could undermine crabbers’ ability to make enough profit to support themselves and their crew.  

Some crabbers believe that perhaps one day ropeless gear might work for them, but there’s also frustration that ideas for safer gear being put forth by fishermen aren’t getting that same support and interest. So in 2021, when then–Assembly member Rob Bonta, a Democrat from Alameda, introduced legislation that would have required a  switch to ropeless gear by 2025, the fleet was livid. It seemed like classic politics: Elected officials championing a proposal that sounds like the perfect fix without absorbing the expertise of those actually out on the water. The bill “unified” the crabbers, says Ogg. “We worked really hard to stop that bill.” 

Since then, the spirit of collaboration has broken down, with a few crabbers convinced environmental groups want them to shut down completely (no one at Oceana or CBD has stated this), while Shester, of Oceana, believes that some leadership in the fleet have asked crabbers to intentionally lose or break ropeless gear to add to the narrative that it doesn’t work. (Ogg and Maharry say that’s not true.)

A few crabbers believe the entire fleet should stand opposed to ropeless gear, but (Ogg remains “neutral,” he says. Ogg often looks at the big picture as others draw lines, a move that’s not always popular, even with crabbers he’s good friends with. “[Ropeless gear] is so contentious,” he says, adding that he’d like a return to collaboration. “If you don’t have the ability to adapt, we’re going to handcuff ourselves.”

A few weeks before Christmas in 2022, Bob Maharry’s boat bulged with 150 crab pots. He had hoped the season might open in time for Christmas, but “last week they saw like a bazillion whales,” he says, referring to the regular surveys conducted by CDFW, researchers, and some members of the fleet. Under RAMP, those surveys help determine when and if crabbing should occur. Even when seasons are delayed, Maharry knows most consumers barely notice: they buy crab hauled in from neighboring states.

Maharry, who slightly resembles the actor John Goodman, bears a cinematic backstory to match—as a wild teen he met a tough Sicilian fisherman who took him under his wing; that wild teen straightened up, only to fall in love with the Sicilian’s daughter and continue on with the business for decades. 

Maharry leans on a wood railing at Pier 45, staring at his loaded-up boat that gently bobs and sways, ready to roll, but going nowhere. Some of his buddies are going to fish “up north,” he says, adding sarcastically, “because they don’t have the whale problem.”

RAMP splits the state into zones, and when entanglements occur or whales show up in big numbers in specific zones, management actions often impact just that specific zone. It’s possible that because San Francisco and Monterey Bay have far more eyes scanning the waters than in far northern remote ports of Trinidad or Crescent City, it’s the Bay Area and Central Coast that shoulder more frequent delays or other restrictions. 

A recent study indicated crabbers in the Bay Area and central regions lost anywhere from $9 million to $14 million in recent years, far more than in the north where there tend to be longer fishing windows.

“It’s not killing me financially,” Maharry says. “It’s killing my soul. I watched my kid sell his boat and get out of the business because he was like ‘this ain’t looking good’ and I said, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’”

Last season, after five whales were entangled by the end of March, three in commercial Dungeness crabbing gear, CDFW closed the entire state. Crabs sold for a high price, so the fleet still made a little more than $53 million, but still shy of the $80 million of years past. 

Maharry often says he’s debating throwing in the towel. Distributors are offering a low price and with all the uncertainty of when the season would be opening and how early it might close, he says, much of his crew left for other fishing territories. (For those very reasons Maharry’s friend, John Barnett of the Amigo, decided to retire from crabbing earlier than he had planned, and this winter sold his commercial crab permit.) Maybe it’s just not worth it this season, or ever again. As Maharry says this, though, he sits in his garage prepping bait jars for traps. “It’s therapy,” he jokes.

The original version of this story misspelled Maharry. We apologize for the error.

About the Author

Anne Marshall-Chalmers is a freelance journalist who grew up in the Bay Area. For many years, though, she bounced around Tennessee and Kentucky while working as a reporter and audio producer. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Atlas Obscura, on NPR, in Inside Climate News, and in other media outlets. She reports on climate change, agriculture, public health, injustice, and the spaces where these topics intersect. She is a graduate of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.