SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Environmentalists claimed victory following an agreement by the National Marine Fisheries Service to complete a new biological assessment on the state of humpback whales living in the waters off the West Coast.
The announcement follows a joint stipulation approved Thursday by U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer after the Center for Biological Diversity sued Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2022. The suit claimed the drift gillnet fishery caused “excessive harm to endangered humpback whales,” in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
“Humpback whales just won a key victory against destructive gillnets,” said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. “These amazing animals face so many threats off California, and absurdly huge nets are a hazard they really shouldn’t have to dodge. This agreement will help ensure whales are protected while the drift gillnet fishery winds down operations over the next five years.”
Kilduff said humpbacks have been endangered since the creation of the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
“The question was whether and when the National Marine Fisheries Service would complete the biological opinion,” Kilduff said in an email. “As part of that opinion, the Endangered Species Act requires ‘reasonable and prudent measures that the secretary considers necessary or appropriate to minimize such impact.’ In other words, it requires implementing measures to reduce humpback entanglements in the fishery. That’s the conservation value from this victory.”
Until now, the fisheries service had been relying on information about the whales from a 2013 assessment, while entanglements in 2021 exceeded the numbers projected in that document.
“That triggers the agency’s duty to create a new biological opinion,” said Kilduff.
With the stipulation, the suit is stayed until June 20, when the National Marine Fisheries Service is expected to issue a biological opinion. The service must provide an informal update on the assessment by May 20 “including a telephone call from counsel” on its status, letting the center know whether or not the agency will make the deadline.
Humpback whales have been struggling in the face of the drift gillnet fishery’s use of mile-long hanging nets, which are left out on the sea overnight to catch large fish such as bluefin tuna, swordfish, and thresher sharks which are hunted both for their meat and their fins for use in the Chinese delicacy shark fin soup.
Humpbacks are not the only animals caught in the nets, however. A report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stated that in 2021, four gray whales, two killer whales, one fin whale, one minke whale, and two unidentified whales were also trapped by the nets.
The Center for Biological Diversity estimates that 12 humpbacks were caught in the nets between 2020 and 2022.
The population of humpback whales off the coast of California stands at about 1,500 individual whales. Prior to the passage of legislation in 2022 to phase out driftnets, the numbers of humpbacks caught in the nets hit a peak of 53 in 2016, according to the center.
Attorneys for the Department of Commerce did not respond to a request for comments.
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