NOAA Announces Rules to Protect False Killer Whales off Hawaii

Measures reduce bycatch in longline fisheries; protect the insular population from extinction

Complying with the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and two federal court orders, today NOAA Fisheries announced two actions to protect false killer whales in the Pacific Islands.  False killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens), are members of the dolphin family and, though naturally uncommon, are found worldwide. As top predators, false killer whales play an important role in the biodiversity of the oceans by helping maintain balance within the ecosystem.

A False Killer Whale and her baby

Rule to Reduce Bycatch under the Marine Mammal Protection Act

Under the MMPA, NOAA Fisheries is establishing measures to reduce incidental catch of two stocks of false killer whales in the Hawaii-based commercial longline fisheries. The MMPA requires the development of take reduction plans for certain marine mammal stocks where there is frequent or occasional bycatch of marine mammals in commercial fisheries.  False killer whales in waters around Hawaii are incidentally caught in the Hawaii-based tuna and swordfish longline fisheries and have adapted to take bait and fish off longline fishing hooks, which can cause them to become hooked or entangled. Currently, the bycatch of two false killer whale stocks, the Hawaii Pelagic and Main Hawaiian Islands Insular stocks, exceed the allowable levels established by the MMPA.

“The steps NOAA Fisheries is taking today will help mitigate the impact on these populations of false killer whales from accidental bycatch by longline fishing,” said Sam Rauch, NOAA’s deputy assistant administrator for fisheries. “NOAA worked closely with fishermen and stakeholders to develop scientifically-based and common-sense solutions to reduce the unintended catch of these mammals. We look forward to continuing our conversations with fishermen and others on bycatch reduction efforts.”

In 2010, NOAA Fisheries convened a take reduction team of government, conservation, academic, and industry stakeholders to develop recommendations to reduce false killer whale interactions in Hawaii’s commercial longline fisheries.

After careful consideration of the team’s recommendations, NOAA Fisheries published a proposed take reduction plan in 2011. NOAA Fisheries revised several aspects of the plan in response to public comments and additional analyses. The final plan requires the use of specific fishing hooks, implements closed fishing areas, and requires fishermen to receive training and certification in ways to release false killer whales that are incidentally caught. NOAA is under a court order to issue the final plan by November 30.

NOAA Fisheries will continue to partner with state agencies, conservation organizations, and the fishing industry to find ways to further reduce bycatch of false killer whales without unduly hampering fishing activities.

Complying with the Endangered Species Act and a court order to issue a final listing determination, NOAA Fisheries today is listing the Main Hawaiian Islands insular population of false killer whales as an endangered distinct population segment to protect it from possible extinction. The ESA defines an endangered species as “any species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.”

Main Hawaiian Islands insular false killer whales, which are found in and around the waters of Hawaii’s eight main islands, face a number of threats, including their small population (estimated at only 151 individuals) and low genetic diversity, as well as hooking and entanglement in fisheries. Surveys conducted by several independent researchers indicate the population has been in decline for at least the past two decades. In taking this action, NOAA reviewed a range of factors, including the population’s risk of going extinct based on its small numbers, threats facing the population, and current efforts to protect the population. NOAA is currently under a court order to issue the final listing determination by December 10.

“NOAA Fisheries used the best data and scientific information available to make this determination,” continued Rauch. “Based on the whales’ small population size, low genetic diversity, and other factors, it became clear to list the Main Hawaiian Islands insular population under the ESA to protect them for future generations and to protect biodiversity in our oceans.”

NOAA Fisheries will continue to monitor the status of the Main Hawaiian Islands insular population of false killer whales through periodic surveys and assessments. NOAA Fisheries will also consider whether to propose designating critical habitat for the population, and will develop a recovery plan with actions to conserve the species. Finally, through the ESA consultation process, NOAA Fisheries will work with federal agencies to ensure that projects or activities that they fund, authorize, or carry out will not jeopardize the continued existence of the listed false killer whale population.

To read the ESA status review, MMPA stock assessment, and final ESA and MMPA actions, visit http://www.fpir.noaa.gov/PRD/prd_false_killer_whale.html

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On the Web: http://www.fpir.noaa.gov

New Lawsuit Filed to Protect Hawaii’s False Killer Whales From Death in Longline Fishery

Environmental groups filed suit in federal court in Honolulu today against the National Marine Fisheries Service, challenging the 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 Hawaii. Earthjustice is representing the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network.

The federal fisheries agency’s own 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.

Photo courtesy National Marine Fisheries Service

“It’s wrong for the government to delay action when its own studies show that these extraordinary animals can’t sustain the number of deaths being visited on them by Hawaii-based longliners,” said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity.

According to the Fisheries Service’s latest official report, longline fishing is killing false killer whales found within 87 miles (140 kilometers ) of the main Hawaiian Islands — the “Hawaii insular stock” — at three times the rate this population can sustain, while false killer whales in Hawaiian waters farther from shore — the “Hawaii pelagic stock” — are dying at four times sustainable levels. The agency has proposed listing the 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.

“These magnificent false killer whales don’t deserve a cruel death at the end of a longline hook, especially since common-sense solutions already exist to prevent serious injuries and drowning,” said Todd Steiner, biologist and executive director of the Turtle Island Restoration Network. “The ecological cost of longlining is mounting. In addition to imperiled false killer whales, the fishery kills critically endangered sea turtles, albatrosses and other seabirds.”

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

“Congress understood that that time is of the essence if we are going to save marine mammals,” said Earthjustice attorney David Henkin. “But here we are, almost 20 years and a trail of litigation later, and false killer whales are still being needlessly hooked and killed in longline gear. One group of false killer whales is down to the last 170 animals, the tuna longline fishery is killing them at three times the rate they can sustain, and yet nothing is being done to protect them. Another group of false killer whales is being depleted by the fishery at four times the rate they can sustain. We’re taking action to protect these false killer whales before they’re gone.”

Earthjustice went to court on behalf of the conservation groups in 2003 to force the Fisheries Service to classify the Hawaii longline fisheries as “Category I” due to their unsustainable “take,” i.e. harming or killing false killer whales. The agency 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, the Service finally established a take-reduction team for the 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.

More than 90 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,” said 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 the Fisheries Service finalizes the plan.”

The agency is now more than six months past the Dec. 16, 2011 statutory deadline to finalize the plan.

In an April 26 letter to Earthjustice, agency 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.”

See more photos of the devastating toll that Hawaii-based longline fishing inflicts on Hawaii’s false killer whales here: http://earthjustice.org/fkw

DLNR Sets Up Reward Tip Line in New Effort Launched to Combat Wildlife Crimes in Hawaii

The Humane Society of the United States and Hawaii DLNR Division of Conservation and Resource Enforcement Inaugurate Reward Tip Line As Total Rewards Grows to $30,000 in Monk Seal Killings.

The Humane Society of the United States and The Humane Society Wildlife Land Trust announced new efforts to support the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources, Division of Conservation and Resource Enforcement’s work to combat poaching and designated wildlife-related crimes by sponsoring a toll-free, confidential reward tip line, 1-855-DLNR-TIP.

The statewide tip line will allow citizens to confidentially report information about poaching crimes to law enforcement. The HSUS will offer $2,500 rewards for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person(s) responsible for specific, predetermined cases. The first case under this new reward program and tip line involves three monk seals killed on Moloka‘i and a fourth monk seal found killed on Kaua‘i. Necropsies performed on three of the four seals confirmed the deaths were suspicious. The fourth case is pending additional information. Anyone with information about these cases is asked to call the confidential reward tip line.

Along with The HSUS’s $2,500 reward offering, the Conservation Council for Hawai‘i, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Marine Conservation Institute are collectively offering $2,500 for each incident. A generous anonymous local donor has offered to match these rewards, bringing the reward total up to $30,000, or $10,000 per seal.

“We are pleased to support the critical work of DOCARE by funding a reward program and tip line for information on illegal wildlife-related offenses,” said Inga Gibson, Hawai‘i state director for The HSUS. “We must be a voice for these innocent animal victims and encourage anyone with information to please call the confidential tip line.”

“Monk seals are a vital part of Hawai‘i’s marine ecosystems,” said William J. Aila, Jr., DLNR chairperson. “The intentional killing of any monk seal is not only illegal, it is inexcusable environmentally and culturally.”

“We thank The HSUS for their sponsorship of this new program to help protect Hawaii’s precious wildlife,” said Randy Awo, DOCARE chief. “Our hope is that the reward program will deter future wildlife crimes and also encourage the community to become more involved in protecting our environment and reporting wildlife offenses.”

Wildlife officials estimate that tens of millions of animals are poached annually nationwide, but less than 5 percent of poached animals come to the attention of law enforcement. Wildlife officials report that poachers often commit other crimes as well.

For more information about this current reward posting please visit humanesociety.org/hawaii

Monk Seal Facts:
• Hunted to the brink of extinction in the late 19th century, Hawaiian monk seal populations have been declining since modern surveying due to human interactions such as intentional killing, marine debris and fishing gear entanglement, disease and loss of habitat.

• Hawaiian monk seals are one of the world’s most endangered animals, with population estimates less than 1,100. Hawaiian monk seals are endemic to Hawai‘i and found nowhere else in the world.

• In June 2010, the Legislature passed Act 165, specifically to increase penalties for taking (which is defined to include harassing or killing) a monk seal. It’s a Class C felony (up to 5 years imprisonment). Someone convicted under this law could face a maximum fine of $50,000. Monk seals are also protected under the federal Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act, which makes it a crime to kill or harm a Hawaiian monk seal.