Tuesday, December 5, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Feds will form team to tackle fishing gear threats to Pacific humpback whales

The take reduction team will develop plans to address the incidental mortality and serious injury of Pacific humpback whales from sablefish pot fisheries.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — The National Marine Fisheries Service announced it is forming a team to protect endangered Pacific humpback whales from deadly sablefish fishing gear entanglements in the Pacific ocean.

The service intends to form a take reduction team by Oct. 31, 2025, under a settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity, which sued the service in January 2022.

The take reduction team will develop plans to address the incidental mortality and serious injury of Pacific humpback whales from sablefish pot fisheries. Most pot fisheries use static, vertical lines that connect buoys on the water’s surface to heavy traps on the ocean floor. These lines, typically made of heavy rope, can wrap around whales’ mouths, fins, and tails, cutting the animals. When a whale cannot break free, it can eventually drown from exhaustion or die of starvation.

“Fishing gear entanglements regularly injure and kill Pacific humpbacks. This team offers a glimmer of hope for change,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Humpbacks cycle nutrients that feed fish, delight whale-watchers and intrinsically improve the oceans. A dedicated team could keep these endangered whales from starving, suffering and dying in fishing gear. It can’t start soon enough.”

The center claimed in its 2022 complaint that the National Marine Fisheries Service failed to protect endangered Pacific humpback whales off of the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington state, and that sablefish pot gear off of the Pacific coast was a danger to the humpbacks.

Specifically, the group challenged an agency permit that allowed the fishery to entangle and kill endangered humpback whales without any measures in place to reduce those harms or a clear plan to implement protections in the near future.

Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, commercial fisheries that occasionally or frequently kill or seriously injure endangered marine mammals must have only a negligible impact on the species or population to qualify for an “incidental take” permit.

The fisheries service argued it lacked the funding to issue take reduction plans for all marine mammals and stocks that are entitled to one, and claimed a statutory exception relieved the agency of its obligation to develop a plan for the Pacific humpback whales.

This past March, a federal judge in San Francisco sided with the center, ruling the permit authorizing the incidental take of Pacific humpbacks violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

“NMFS cannot indefinitely delay developing a take reduction plan while continuing to authorize . . . permits for the incidental take of endangered and threatened humpback whales," U.S. District Judge James Donato wrote.

In 2021, the agency found a 400% increase in humpback mortality and serious injury from human activities since 2018, and estimated that the sablefish fisheries kill or seriously injure at least one Pacific humpback whale every year. On average, about 25 humpback whales are entangled annually off of the West Coast. 

To make all fishing safer, the center has proposed the fisheries service require fisheries to convert to ropeless gear. The petition urges the agency to prioritize this conversion in national marine sanctuaries. 

Categories / Courts, Environment, Government

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.