False killer whale hookings threaten longline tuna fishing

Published On: Mar 06 2013 09:14:54 AM HST
Updated On: Mar 07 2013 10:45:20 AM HST

National Marine Fisheries

HONOLULU -

Earlier this week, the National Marine Fisheries Service confirmed that, on Jan. 29, a false killer whale in Hawaiian waters sustained injuries likely to be fatal when it was hooked by a Hawaii-based longline tuna fishing boat.

Under the Fisheries Service’s False Killer Whale Take Reduction Plan, a second such hooking of a false killer whale in Hawaiian waters this calendar year will trigger the closure to tuna longline fishing of a 112,575 square nautical mile area to the south of the main Hawaiian Islands where fishery interactions with false killer whales frequently occur.

The Fisheries Service issued the plan in November 2012 in response to a series of lawsuits brought by Earthjustice on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network to protect Hawaii’s false killer whales from unsustainable levels of death and serious injury in the longline fishery.

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The Scientific and Statistical Committee, that advises the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council, recommended that the National Marine Fisheries Service undertake numerous future actions regarding the allowable interaction calculations with the false killer whales as well as the clarity and transparency of the process.  This includes a more comprehensive photo identification capture-mark-recapture analysis of the populations, a comprehensive spatial genetic structure analysis, an improved sampling approach, and expanded membership of the serious injury working group.

The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council will be meeting in American Samoa next week to consider the recommendations.

“The hooking and likely lethal injury of a false killer whale less than a month into 2013 should be a wake-up call to longline fishers that they need to put the protection plan into effect immediately or risk closure of their fishing grounds,” said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity, who served on the working group the Fisheries Service convened to help develop the plan. “The plan requires weaker hooks and stronger lines precisely to prevent this type of harm.”

In the Jan. 29, 2013 incident, the false killer whale was hooked in the mouth.  As the crew reeled it in, the branch line broke, releasing the whale with an estimated 20-to-30-feet of the branch line, all of the leader (about one foot), and the hook still attached.

The Fisheries Service concluded that the incident was a “serious injury” -- one likely to lead to death -- because hookings in the mouth with substantial amount of gear still attached prevent the animal from eating and/or cause drowning through entanglement.

The protection plan requires longline fishers to switch to the use of “weak hooks” that are strong enough to hold an ahi tuna, the fishery’s target species, but weak enough to allow a larger, stronger false killer whale to straighten the hook and pull it out, avoiding serious injury.

The plan also requires stronger branch lines that will not break during marine mammal hookings.   These gear modification requirements did not take effect until Feb. 27, a month after the fatal hooking.

“The Fisheries Service dragged its feet for over a decade, requiring three lawsuits before it finally complied with the Marine Mammal Protection Act and issued a plan to address false killer whale deaths in the Hawai‘i-based longline fishery,” said Earthjustice attorney David Henkin, the lead attorney in the lawsuits. “Had the Fisheries Service acted sooner, as Congress intended, this latest tragedy likely could have been avoided.”

According to the Fisheries Service’s latest analysis, longline fishing is killing false killer whales found within 87 miles of the main Hawaiian Islands -- the “Hawaii Insular Stock” -- at nearly twice the rate this population can sustain, while false killer whales in Hawaiian waters farther from shore -- the “Hawaii Pelagic Stock” -- are dying at nearly 150 percent of sustainable levels.

In November 2012, the Fisheries Service listed the Hawaii 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.

“The magnificent false killer whale doesn’t deserve a cruel, painful death at the end of a longline hook, and it is only the latest victim of this indiscriminate fishing method,” said Todd Steiner, biologist and executive director of the Turtle Island Restoration Network.   “Critically endangered leatherback sea turtles, sharks and albatross are all caught and killed by industrial longline fishing. The ecological impact of industrial longlining is mounting and threatens the very balance of our imperiled oceans.”

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