SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — A legal agreement finalized Tuesday over the protection of humpback whales is expected to help the threatened animals thrive while maintaining the ocean’s health.
The deal stricken between the National Marine Fisheries Service and Center for Biological Diversity will create a team to reduce the number of whales that get tangled in a West Coast federal fishery. The service will form the team by Oct. 31, 2025, a press release stated.
“There is no reason these animals should have to suffer or die in this way,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the center. “This agreement is incredibly important.”
A federal court in March sided with the center after it filed suit last year against the fisheries service. The center argued the service failed to protect Pacific humpback whales from getting entangled in sablefish pot gear off the California, Oregon and Washington coasts.
According to Monsell, the fishery operates in an area with two humpback whale populations: a Central American population and a Mexican one. The Central American population is considered endangered and only hundreds of the whales remain. The Mexican population is threatened and some 3,000 remain.
“Even one entanglement of these animals is a concern from a conservation perspective,” Monsell said.
The center challenged a permit allowing the fishery to entangle and kill the whales without any precautions to mitigate or a plan for future measures. The March ruling by U.S. District Court Judge James Donato said the National Marine Fisheries Service “cannot indefinitely delay developing a take reduction plan while continuing to authorize … permits for the incidental take of endangered and threatened humpback whales.”
The Marine Mammal Protection Act requires that for commercial fisheries to qualify for an “incidental take” permit, they must have only a negligible impact on endangered marine mammals that are occasionally or frequently killed or injured, the release stated.
In 2021 there was a 400% increase in humpback whale mortality and serious injury from humans over the previous three years, the center found. It cited estimates that the sablefish fishery kills or significantly injures at least one whale each year. About 25 whales are entangled each year on the West Coast, though over half of those aren’t linked to any specific fishery.
A majority of trap and pot fisheries use static lines that can wrap around whales’ mouths, fins and tail. The entanglements can lead to whales drowning, having flippers cut off or dying due to exhaustion. The sablefish fishery uses 30 to 50 pots along strings 2 miles long.
Pop-up traps, on the other hand, employ bags or buoys triggered by remote or sensor, floating traps to the surface and removing the need for lines. The Center for Biological Diversity has suggested the fisheries service require the use of ropeless or pop-up gear, not pot gear, within five years. It wants that change prioritized in national marine sanctuaries.
Monsell said the agreement focuses on humpback whales, though many other types of whales, as well as sea turtles, will benefit from it. She emphasized that humpback whales are necessary to the health of the oceans: Their waste releases iron and fertilizes plankton, which is the base of the food chain.
“There are so many reasons why we need to do better for the sake of the whales,” Monsell said.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national and nonprofit organization with over 1.7 million members and online activists. It is dedicated to protecting endangered species and wild spaces, the release stated.
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