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It’s True: Feds Must Protect False Killer Whales

If you were a false killer whale off the Hawaiian coast you’d probably be calling ocean 911 right about now on your underwater cell phone.

You’d frantically shout: “Hurry, send help now! Us false killer whales are being killed by longline fishing hooks!” And the ocean 911 operator would respond: “We have been receiving a lot of calls from you false killer whales and I’m going to tell you what I tell everyone else: you’re just going to have to sit tight and wait because the National Marine Fisheries Service is still figuring it out! Have a nice day and may the odds be ever in your favor.”

Seriously, NMFS, what’s the deal? The agency said it would finalize its plan by last December to reduce the number of false killer whales dying at the hands of Hawai’i’s longline tuna fishery. Well, here we are at the start of July and still no final plan; the agency says it needs more time. But if you’re a false killer whale dodging longline hooks just to stay alive, excessive delay and bureaucratic hand-wringing is the last thing you need.

In response to the agency’s foot dragging, our legal team filed suit in federal court in Honolulu last week against NMFS, challenging the agency’s failure to finalize and implement a plan to protect false killer whales from longline fishing. Earthjustice is representing the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network in the case.

According to NMFS, longline fishing is killing false killer whales found within 87 miles of the main Hawaiian Islands—the “Hawaiʻi Insular Stock”—at three times the rate the population can sustain. False killer whales in Hawaiian waters farther from shore—the “Hawaiʻi Pelagic Stock”—are dying at four times sustainable levels. NMFS has proposed listing the Hawaiʻi 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.

What’s even more frustrating is that while NMFS delays issuing its final plan to reduce false killer whale deaths, all marine mammal deaths due to commercial fishing were supposed to have ended more than a decade ago. Congress amended the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1994 with the goal of achieving zero marine mammal mortality 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.

“Congress understood that time is of the essence if we are going to save marine mammals,” said Earthjustice attorney David Henkin, who is arguing the case. “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. NMFS cannot completely deprive Hawai‘i’s false killer whales of vital protections while it tinkers. The law imposes deadlines for a reason.”