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Feds sued over danger to humpback whales from pot-fishing gear

"Migrating whales shouldn't have to dodge deadly commercial fishing gear especially in national marine sanctuaries," a Center for Biological Diversity attorney said.

(CN) — Conservationists say the Biden administration is putting humpback whales off the coast of California, Oregon and Washington state at increased risk of death and injury from pot-fishing gear used to catch sablefish.

In a complaint filed Monday in San Francisco, the Center for Biological Diversity claims the National Marine Fisheries Service issued a permit in December for the pot fishery that allows for incidental killing and injury to the endangered whales based on a fundamentally flawed biological analysis in violation of the law.

“These migrating whales shouldn’t have to dodge deadly commercial fishing gear, especially in national marine sanctuaries,” Catherine Kilduff, an attorney for the center said in a statement. “It’s outrageous that the Fisheries Service rubber-stamped the status quo despite growing threats to these whales.”

Representatives of the Fisheries Service didn't immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the lawsuit.

The sablefish fisheries on the West Coast had been operating for the past five years without authorization to take whales under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act, according to the center. The fisheries use 2-mile strings of 30 to 50 pots to catch the bottom dwelling sablefish, which are also known as black cod or butterfish.

Commercial fisheries entangle 25 humpback whales annually off the West Coast, the center said, and more than half of the entanglements are not tied to a specific fishery.

The center last month petitioned the Fisheries Service to require crab, lobster and other trap fisheries to convert to new ropeless or “pop-up” gear over the next five years. Most entanglements occur in trap fisheries that use heavy vertical ropes that connect a surface buoy to traps on the seafloor. The ropes get caught on whales’ mouths, fins or tails and can cause them to drown, according to the Center.

The rate of entanglements of large whales in fishing gear off the West Coast has increased dramatically since 2014, the center says in its complaint. Since 2000, the Fisheries Service has confirmed 289 large whale entanglements in fishing gear and pot gear has become the most commonly identified gear type associated with entanglement reports.

Humpback whales breed during the winter in the waters off Mexico and Central America and migrate north during spring and summer to feed in the Pacific Ocean on the coasts of California and Oregon. California's Central Coast specifically is a “hot spot” for humpback whale activity from April through November and fishing in this area at that time increases the risk of the pot fishery’s whale entanglements, the center says.

The group seeks a court declaration that the Fisheries Service has violated the Endangered Species Act by issuing "an inadequate biological opinion" and wants the court to vacate the 2021 permit.

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