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Lawsuit Launched to Protect Pacific Habitat for Humpback Whales Threatened by Fishing Gear, Ship Strikes, Oil Spills

“California’s industrial fisheries, ship traffic and oil spills are contributing to the decline of humpback whale populations,” said Todd Steiner, executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network. “If we don’t protect humpback habitat now, we’re ultimately advancing the clock toward their extinction.”

SAN FRANCISCO— Turtle Island Restoration Network, the Center for Biological Diversity  and Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation today filed a notice of intent to sue the Trump administration for failing to protect humpback whale habitat in the Pacific Ocean, where the animals face threats from fisheries, ship strikes and oil spills.

“West Coast humpback whales face growing threats that the Trump administration’s ignoring. Record numbers of whales are getting tangled in nets and lines while federal officials just stand back and tally the carnage,” said Catherine Kilduff, a Center attorney. “At the very least, the feds have to protect the critical habitat along the West Coast that’s now prone to oil spills, busy with shipping traffic, and dangerously dense with fishing gear.”

One population of endangered humpback whales that feeds off California’s coast numbers barely more than 400 individuals, meaning any death or injury from entanglement could hurt the entire population’s recovery. At least 54 humpback whales were found tangled up in fishing gear off the West Coast last year. Entanglements cause injuries and death as the ropes cut into animals’ flesh, sap their strength and lead to drowning. Many of last year’s incidents were clustered around the biologically rich Monterey Bay, where migrating whales come to feed.

“California’s industrial fisheries, ship traffic and oil spills are contributing to the decline of humpback whale populations,” said Todd Steiner, executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network. “If we don’t protect humpback habitat now, we’re ultimately advancing the clock toward their extinction.”

Ship strikes and oil spills are the other major threats to West Coast humpback whales. A new study found that an estimated 22 humpback whales off California, Oregon and Washington die each year after being hit by ships. In 2015 endangered humpback whales were observed swimming in the Refugio oil spill, which dumped at least 21,000 gallons of crude oil into the ocean. The spill killed hundreds of marine mammals and birds, including dolphins and sea lions. The company responsible recently applied for a permit to rebuild the pipelines.

“Since time immemorial, Chumash people have shared our home waters of the Santa Barbara Channel with the Paxat Nation, California’s humpback whales. They have a deeply respected role in our culture, guiding and protecting our maritime people as we navigate through the channel. In reciprocity, the Chumash people play a strong role in protecting our magnificent relatives as they face increasing threats from ship strikes, entanglement, and gas and oil development,” said Alicia Cordero, First Nations program officer for the Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation. “Ensuring proper designation of critical habitat for these populations of endangered humpback whales is a core responsibility for Chumash people, keeping our millennia-old commitment to All Our Relations.”

Critical habitat protection would help safeguard ocean areas essential for migrating and feeding. The designation would ensure that federally permitted activities do not continue to drive humpback whales to the brink of extinction by destroying important areas. Evidence shows that endangered or threatened species that have protected critical habitat are twice as likely to show signs of recovery as those without it.

Humpback whale populations that need critical habitat were identified in 2016 by the National Marine Fisheries Service, including the threatened Mexico population that feeds off the U.S. West Coast and Alaska and the endangered Central America population that feeds almost exclusively off California and Oregon.

 

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