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False Killer Whales Dying in Hawai‘i Longline Fishery

Conservation Groups Return to Court to Gain Overdue Protections

Honolulu, Hawai‘i – Marine conservationists filed suit in federal court in Honolulu today against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) challenging the federal agency’s failure to finalize and implement a plan to protect false killer whales from the Hawai‘i-based longline fisheries. The move is aimed at ending the continuing slaughter of false killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens, a large dolphin species) in the waters of Hawai‘i. Earthjustice is representing the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network in the lawsuit.

The fisheries agency’s studies show that longline fishing is killing Hawai‘i’s false killer whales at rates far higher than the animals can sustain, yet the agency is now six months past its statutory deadline to finalize a plan to reduce the killing. The agency has failed to implement protections proposed by a team of experts on the Take Reduction Team which include gear modifications, disentanglement training for the captain and crew and the establishment of a year round Northern exclusion zone.

“As the government drags its feet, these magnificent marine mammals are being pushed closer to extinction,” said Todd Steiner of Turtle Island Restoration Network (SeaTurtles.org). “These magnificent [false killer] whales don’t deserve a cruel death at the end of a longline fishing hook, especially after common-sense solutions already exist that can prevent serious injuries and drowning. The ecological cost of longlining is mounting. False killer whales are only the most recent casualty on the death list that includes critically endangered sea turtles, albatross and other seabirds.”

“It’s unconscionable for NMFS to delay action when its own studies show that Hawai‘i’s false killer whales cannot possibly sustain the current level of lethal interactions with the Hawai‘i-based longliners,” said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity.

According to NMFS’s latest official report, longline fishing is killing false killer whales found within 140 kilometers (87 miles) of the main Hawaiian Islands – the “Hawai‘i Insular Stock” – at three times the rate this population can sustain, while false killer whales in Hawaiian waters farther from shore – the “Hawai‘i Pelagic Stock” – are dying at four times sustainable levels. NMFS has proposed listing the Hawai‘i Insular Stock, which numbers only about 170 animals and has been declining by 9 percent per year since 1989, as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act.

View more photos of the devastating toll that Hawai‘i-based longline fishing inflicts on Hawai‘i’s false killer whales here.

Donwload a fact sheet about false killer whales here.

Background

Congress amended the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) in 1994 with the goal of achieving zero marine mammal morality in commercial fisheries by the year 2001. The law establishes clear deadlines for NMFS to take action to protect marine mammals, which the agency routinely ignores.

Earthjustice went to court on behalf of the conservation groups in 2003 to force NMFS to classify the Hawai‘i longline fisheries as “Category I” due to their unsustainable “take” of false killer whale. NMFS made the classification in 2004, but failed to follow up on the listing by convening a team to develop a take reduction plan.

Another round of litigation followed, and, in January 2010, NMFS finally established a take reduction team for Hawai‘i’s false killer whales, which included scientists, conservationists, state and federal agencies and fishing industry representatives. Within six months, the team achieved consensus on a draft take reduction plan.

Over ninety percent of longline fishery interactions lead to death for false killer whales. The animals typically drown when they are hooked by the deep-set fishing lines, which target ahi. If the false killer whales do escape, they often trail fishing gear that hinders their ability to feed, causing them to die of starvation or infections stemming from their wounds.

“The best science tells us that, to reduce the fishery’s killing of false killer whales, we need to figure out how to help animals that get hooked free themselves,” explained Cummings, who served on the take reduction team. “The team proposed requiring the use of ‘weak hooks’ that would be strong enough to hold an ahi, the fishery’s target species, but weak enough to allow a larger, stronger false killer whale to straighten the hook and pull it out. Of course, this proposal, which the longliners agreed to, won’t do the false killer whales any good unless and until NMFS finalizes the plan.”

NMFS is now six months past the December 16, 2011 statutory deadline to finalize the plan.

In an April 26, 2012 letter to Earthjustice, NMFS regional administrator Michael Tosatto agreed that “conservation needs of false killer whales are of paramount concern.” However, the agency claimed it needed more time to revise its take reduction plan.

“Congress understood that no take reduction plan will be perfect when it’s issued, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act allows the federal fisheries agency to revise its plans, if warranted,” said Henkin. “The agency cannot, however, completely deprive Hawai‘i’s false killer whales of vital protections while it tinkers. The law imposes deadlines for a reason.”

A December 2008 study by the Government Accountability Office recognized this, saying delays in finalizing take reduction plans “could result in continued harm to already dwindling marine mammal populations.”

“NMFS has known about the false killer whales’ dire plight for years, but has repeatedly refused to take action until forced by litigation,” Steiner said. “That’s why we are headed back to court.”

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Turtle Island Restoration Network is a non-profit environmental organization committed to the study, protection, enhancement, conservation, and preservation of the marine environment and the wildlife that lives within it. TIRN has approximately 60,000 members and supporters, many of whom reside in the state of Hawai‘i, and has offices in the United States, Costa Rica, and Papua New Guinea. For more information, visit www.SeaTurtles.org.

Earthjustice is a non-profit, public-interest, environmental law firm. The Mid-Pacific office opened in Honolulu in 1988 as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, and has represented dozens of environmental, native Hawaiian, and community organizations. Earthjustice is the only non-profit environmental law firm in Hawai‘i and the Mid-Pacific, and does not charge clients for its services. For more information, visit www.earthjustice.org.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 200,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places. For more information, visit www.biologicaldiversity.org