Climate change and increased variability and intensity of climate events, in combination with recovering protected species populations and highly capitalized fisheries, are posing new challenges for fisheries management. We examine socio-ecological features of the unprecedented 2014–2016 northeast Pacific marine heatwave to understand the potential causes for record numbers of whale entanglements in the central California Current crab fishery. We observed habitat compression of coastal upwelling, changes in availability of forage species (krill and anchovy), and shoreward distribution shift of foraging whales. We propose that these ecosystem changes, combined with recovering whale populations, contributed to the exacerbation of entanglements throughout the marine heatwave. In 2016, domoic acid contamination prompted an unprecedented delay in the opening of California’s Dungeness crab fishery that inadvertently intensified the spatial overlap between whales and crab fishery gear. We present a retroactive assessment of entanglements to demonstrate that cooperation of fishers, resource managers, and scientists could mitigate future entanglement risk by developing climate-ready fisheries approaches, while supporting thriving fishing communities.