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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, August 16, 2004

Whale-protection measures may affect longliners

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Staff Writer

It's too early to tell what kind of regulations might be in store for Hawai'i's longline fishing fleet now that the National Marine Fisheries Service has reclassified the fishery to acknowledge its effect on the false killer whale.

"No one's up in arms yet," said longline fisherman Scott Barrows, general manager of the Hawai'i Longline Association. "I just hope we're dealt with fairly."

The fisheries service on Tuesday formally raised the classification level of the Hawai'i longline fishery to Category 1 after determining that the fleet is responsible for killing and seriously injuring false killer whales at unsustainable rates.

Under the new designation, the agency is charged with convening a team of scientists, fishermen, environmental group representatives and other interested parties to draft a plan to reduce the number of incidental killings of the whales and other marine mammals. Such a plan would be designed to reduce the death or serious injury of marine mammals to rates approaching zero within five years.

State waters were recently opened to swordfish longline fishing after a three-year ban while rules were developed to protect threatened sea turtles.

Bill Robinson, regional administrator of the agency's Pacific Islands Regional Office, said it's too early to speculate what the regulatory effect of reclassifying the Hawai'i longline fishery will be.

"In the meantime, we are hopeful that the new regulatory measures recently put into place to reduce encounters with endangered sea turtles will also benefit marine mammals," Robinson said.

For the short term, the new Category I status means fishing operators will be required to obtain an authorization certificate and pay a fee of $25. Additionally, they will be warned that they may be subject to an incidental-take reduction plan and requested to carry an observer onboard.

The new classification was designated after the fisheries service convened a June workshop in Honolulu to review information about the longline impact on false killer whale populations in Hawai'i waters.

The false killer whale is a medium-sized toothed whale, with a long, slender body, found in tropical and warm-temperate waters worldwide.

It is neither endangered nor threatened.

In waters off Hawai'i, however, the false killer whale population is consider a "strategic stock" worthy of protection under federal law because its yearly mortality and serious injury rates exceed sustainable rates. In raw numbers, an average of 4.6 false killer whales a year were killed or seriously injured by longliners in Hawai'i waters between 1997 and 2001, according to fisheries service estimates.

Barrows, the owner of two longline boats, said he can't believe the numbers are that high.

"Personally, I've been fishing longline for 20 years and I've never seen a whale on a hook," he said. "Really, I believe that with more study they're going to find that there isn't that much interaction."

But Earthjustice attorney David Henkin said the whale's survival in Hawaiian waters is at stake, and it's high time the National Marine Fisheries Service acknowledged the toll the fishing fleet inflicts on the marine mammal.

Henkin said a lawsuit filed by Earthjustice in November of last year helped to put pressure on the agency to reclassify the fishery. The suit, which sought the protections that accompany classification, was filed on behalf of Hui Malama i Kohola, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Turtle Island Restoration Network.

In addition to protecting the false killer whale, he said, the reclassification will offer protections for other marine mammals, including the Hawaiian monk seal, humpback whale, sperm whale, blue whale and fin whale.

Even though the Hawai'i Longline Association has been fighting what it regards as unwarranted legal mandates for several years, Barrows said the industry doesn't really mind regulation.

"As long as its based on sound decisions and good data," he said.

Reach Timothy Hurley at thurley@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 244-4880.