Conservation Groups Return to Court to Protect False Killer Whales in Hawai‘i

Longline fisheries continue killing whales at unsustainable levels


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


Brendan Cummings, Center for Biological Diversity, (951) 768-8301


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

Earthjustice filed suit in federal court in Honolulu today against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), challenging the agency’s failure to finalize and implement a plan to protect false killer whales from the Hawaiʻi-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 Hawaiʻi. Earthjustice is representing the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network.

A false killer whale, snagged on a longline,
becomes victim of commercial fishing. (NMFS)
View a slideshow of false killer whales and longlines.

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

The federal fisheries agency’s own studies show that longline fishing is killing Hawaiʻi’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, called a take reduction plan.

“It’s unconscionable for NMFS to delay action when its own studies show that Hawaiʻi’s false killer whales cannot sustain the current level of lethal interactions with the Hawaiʻi-based longliners,” said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity.

According to NMFS’s latest official report, longline fishing is killing false killer whales found within 140 kilometers (87 miles) of the main Hawaiian Islands – the “Hawaiʻi Insular Stock”—at three times the rate this population can sustain, while 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.

“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 (MMPA) 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 that time is of the essence if we are going to save marine mammals,” said Earthjustice attorney David Henkin. “But here we are, almost twenty 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,” said Henkin. “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 NMFS to classify the Hawaiʻi longline fisheries as “Category I” due to their unsustainable “take” of false killer whale. NMFS 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, NMFS 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.

Over ninety 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,” explained 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 NMFS finalizes the plan.”

NMFS is now over six months past the December 16, 2011 statutory deadline to finalize the plan.

In an April 26, 2012 letter to Earthjustice, NMFS 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.”

Download high resolution photos.

Read the complaint.

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