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Hawaiian False Killer Whale Endangered

WASHINGTON (CN) - The National Marine Fisheries Service has added a rare Hawaiian false killer whale to the federal endangered species list, according to a final determination signed last week.

The National Resources Defense Council had petitioned to protect what is now called the Main Hawaiian Islands insular population of false killer whales, in 2009, and sued in 2012 to force the agency to issue a final decision, which it did, Nov. 20.

"Today's decision gives these endangered whales a new chance for survival," said Michael Jasny, Director of The NRDC's Marine Mammal Project, in a council press release, Monday. "With this decision, we are better able to ensure the existence not only of the whales, but of one of the world's great biological oases," Jasny continued.

The NRDC press release states: "The Hawaiian false killer whale is a small, ecologically and genetically unique population that has suffered a significant decline over the last 25 years and, according to recent analysis by the National Marine Fisheries Service, only 150 of the animals may be left. In 2010, NMFS released a 230-page report concluding that the population stands 'at a high risk of extinction.'"

The species faces many threats, including "interactions with local fisheries, reduced food sources and exposure to toxic chemicals," the NRDC press release states.

The false killer whale, which is actually a species of dolphin, lives in temperate and tropical waters around the world in pods of 10-20 animals. The Hawaiian insular population is the only known population that lives close to land.

The species gets its common name from its physical similarity to orcas, which are also known as killer whales. Like orcas, false killer whales feed on other marine mammals, like dolphins, as well as deepwater fish like yellowfin tuna and mahi mahi.

In the wild, false killer whales can grow between 15-20 feet long, weigh up to 1,500 pounds, and live for as long as 60 years.

But the species faces many threats, including "interactions with local fisheries, reduced food sources and exposure to toxic chemicals," the press release states. "Recent population surveys of the insular population of Hawaiian false killer whales show precipitous decline in size over the past 20-25 years. In 1989, well over 400 individuals were seen in aerial surveys compared to more recent population estimates of 150 individuals," according to the press release.

In its final rule, the NMFS agreed with population viability analysis models indicating that there is "a probability of greather-than-90-percent likelihood of the DPS [designated population segment] declining to fewer than 20 individuals within 75 years, which would result in functional extinction beyond the point where recovery is possible."

The NMFS also noted that current conservation efforts are not enough to protect false killer whales from threats such as habitat destruction, diseases resulting from climate change, exposure to environmental changes, and hooking by fisheries.

In addition, it banned the hunting and killing, or "take," of Hawaiian false killer whales in U.S. waters, and will allow capture of the Hawaiian insular species only "for scientific purposes or to enhance the propagation or survival of the species."

"Today's announcement recognizes that this small, vulnerable population of whales faces a number of serious manmade threats," said Sylvia Fallon, Senior Scientist with NRDC, as quoted in its press release. "Injury in fishing nets, competition for food, and exposure to pollution are some of the threats that today's important decision is designed to remedy," Fallon continued.

The listing will take effect 30 days after the NMFS rule is published in the Federal Register.

Nov. 21, NOAA Fisheries also announced it is establishing measures to reduce incidental catch of two stocks of false killer whales in the Hawaii-based commercial longline fisheries: Hawaii Pelagic and Main Hawaiian Islands Insular stocks.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act requires the development of take reduction plans for certain marine mammal stocks where there is frequent or occasional bycatch of marine mammals in commercial fisheries. False killer whales in waters around Hawaii are incidentally caught in the Hawaii-based tuna and swordfish longline fisheries and have adapted to take bait and fish off longline fishinghooks, which can cause them to become hooked or entangled.

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