Two size 15/0 circle hooks are shown: (A) An unfished hook, and (B) A hook straightened by a false killer whale during field trials. (NOAA/Special to West Hawaii Today)
Federal protection and measures to reduce incidental take of false killer whales off Hawaii will soon go into effect.
False killer whales, Pseudorca crassidens, which make their home within 75 miles of the main Hawaiian Islands, will be listed as an endangered species effective a month after the rule is published in the Federal Register on Nov. 27, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Also that day, Marine Mammal Protection Act rules to reduce by-catch of the species as well as pelagic, or open ocean, false killer whales go into effect.
The endangered species designation makes it prohibited to take, or “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct,” any false killer whale within 75 miles of the islands, said Nancy Young, a NOAA marine mammal biologist. The designation, she said, is important because the insular population of just 150 mammals has a 90 percent risk of becoming functionally extinct, or having fewer than 20 in the population, within 75 years.
“They (the scientists and review team) looked at the status and they saw, based on the data, that it is recently declining in population and there are a bunch of threats to these species that we didn’t have anything in place to really protect them,” she said.
The designation also opens the path for NOAA to consider designating critical habitat for the population and develop a recovery plan, she said.
“Designation is the first step — it lays out the initial protection,” she said.
The administration’s action designating the insular population an endangered species follows a federal court-ordered settlement requiring the administration render a final determination for the false killer whale. The National Resource Defense Council had filed suit in May after the National Marine Fisheries Service failed to render a decision on the designation within the a statutory deadline.
The false killer whale, a member of the dolphin family, is long, slender and almost entirely black, ranging in length from 16 to 20 feet, according to NOAA. Their most distinguishing feature is seven to 12 pairs of large, conical teeth that resemble teeth of a killer whale.
The whale is found worldwide and around the main Hawaiian Islands with the insular, or closer to shore species, population estimated at 151 individuals. Young said the population has been on the decline for the past two decades.
Also Wednesday, NOAA, complying with another court-ordered settlement, moved forward in establishing measures to reduce incidental catch of both the insular and pelagic false killer whale stocks in accordance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The act requires the development of take-reduction plans for certain marine mammal stocks where there is frequent or occasional by-catch in commercial fisheries, according to NOAA.
According to NOAA, the by-catch of the two stocks exceeds the allowable levels established by the act.
Publishing a finalized plan ends a nearly decade of litigation by the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network, which was represented by EarthJustice.
Litigation began in 2003 when EarthJustice filed suit to force the government to reclassify Hawaii longline fisheries because of their unsustainable “take” of false killer whales. The service made the classification in 2004, but failed to follow up on the listing by convening a team to develop a take reduction plan. In 2010, the fisheries service established the team; a draft plan was developed but not finalized by the December 2011 deadline, prompting the latest lawsuit.
The plan will require longliners use circle hooks strong enough to hold bigeye tuna but weak enough to allow false killer whales to free themselves. Other key elements of the plan include expanding the longline prohibited area around the main Hawaiian Islands and provisions for closing an area south of the islands when false killer whale by-catch is excessive.
Young said new gear requirements for the longline fishery would go into effect 90 days after publication to provide time for the fisherman to change their gear.
According to a prepared statement, the trio involved in the litigation with NOAA acknowledged the plan’s importance in protecting the mammal, but noted some disappointment with several requirements being weakened.
“The law requires the take reduction plan to reduce false killer whale deaths in the longline fishery to sustainable levels within six months and to further reduce harm from the fishery to one-tenth that level within five years,” said Earthjustice Attorney David Henkin. “We will be keeping watch on the situation to make sure Hawaii’s false killer whales receive the protection to which they are legally entitled and that they desperately need. If the agency shirks its duty, we will take prompt action to uphold the law, as we have in the past.”