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Protecting False Killer Whales from Longline Fishing

Victory: Longline fishing has been killing false killer whales, members of the dolphin family, at twice the level the population can sustain. Earthjustice’s suit to stop this led to a settlement in which the government pledged to finalize and implement protections for these marine mammals.
October 16, 2012
Honolulu, HI —

The federal agency charged with protecting marine mammals settled a court case by pledging to finalize and implement protections for false killer whales by November 30, 2012. False killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens, which are actually large dolphins) have suffered unsustainable levels of death and serious injury in the Hawaiʻi-based longline fisheries. The National Marine Fisheries Service struck the agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network, represented by Earthjustice. When approved by the federal district court, the settlement will wrap up a lawsuit the conservation groups brought in June 2012.

“For more than two years, the Fisheries Service has had sitting on its shelf a plan to protect Hawaiʻi’s false killer whales that reflects the consensus of expert biologists, longline fishermen and conservation groups,” said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity, a member of the take reduction team that the Fisheries Service convened in 2010. “With the fishery continuing to kill false killer whales at rates far beyond what they can sustain, it’s long past time for the agency to get that plan off the shelf, put it into action, and start saving whales.”

The Service’s own data have shown for over a decade that Hawaiʻi-based longline fishing kills false killer whales in Hawaiian waters at unsustainable rates. The latest data, which the agency released in August 2012, reveal that, each year, longline fishing kills an average of more than 13 false killer whales from the “Hawaiʻi Pelagic Stock” (animals found more than 22 nautical miles from the main Hawaiian Islands), nearly 50 percent more than what the agency has said that population can sustain.

False killer whales in the “Hawaiʻi Insular Stock” (animals found within 76 nautical miles of the main Hawaiian Islands) are being killed in Hawaiʻi-based longlines at nearly twice the sustainable rate, contributing to a 9 percent decline in the population each year since 1989. Only about 150 of these animals remain, and the Fisheries Service has proposed to list them as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act.

View photos of the devastating toll that Hawaiʻi-based longline fishing inflicts on Hawaiʻi’s false killer whales:

“In Hawaiian waters and around the world, longline fisheries are indiscriminately killing untold numbers of marine mammals, sea turtles, sharks and other sensitive species,” said Todd Steiner, biologist and executive director of the Turtle Island Restoration Network. “It is high time to end this slaughter. The Fisheries Service needs to issue rules that prioritize species protection over commercial exploitation.”

Earthjustice went to court on behalf of the conservation groups in 2003 to force the government to classify the Hawaiʻi longline fisheries as “Category I” due to their unsustainable “take” of false killer whales. The Fisheries Service made the classification in 2004, but failed to follow up on the listing by convening a team to develop a take reduction plan, prompting a second round of litigation.

In January 2010, the Fisheries Service finally established a take reduction team for Hawaiʻi’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, but the Service then failed to finalize the plan by December 2011, as the Marine Mammal Protection Act required, triggering the latest lawsuit.

“This case vividly illustrates why it is vital for citizens to be able to access the courts to hold government agencies accountable,” said Earthjustice attorney David Henkin. “It has taken three lawsuits over nearly a decade to compel the Fisheries Service finally to protect Hawaiʻi’s false killer whales. Without citizen suits, the agency may well have dragged its feet until it was too late to save these unique marine mammals.”


David Henkin, Earthjustice, (808) 599-2436, ext. 6614

Brendan Cummings, Center for Biological Diversity, (760) 366-2232, ext. 304

Todd Steiner, Turtle Island Restoration Network, (415) 488-7652