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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, January 8, 2010

New protection closer for false killer whales


By William Cole
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawai'i's unique population of false killer whales is one step closer to gaining new protection as an endangered or threatened species alongside humpback whales, monk seals and several types of sea turtles.

Such a listing could bring greater restrictions for Hawai'i's longline and nearshore fisheries, which are blamed by environmentalists for hooking and entangling the up-to-20-foot, 1,500-pound mammals.

A listing as endangered for false killer whales, which are part of the dolphin family, would bring a "critical habitat" review and other recovery steps.

The federal government's National Marine Fisheries Service this week said a petition to list Hawai'i's false killer whales as endangered "presents substantial scientific or commercial information" that such action may be warranted.

A comprehensive year-long analysis will solicit scientific and commercial information on the species, and then a determination will be made on whether to list Hawai'i's false killer whales as endangered.

"We think that looking at the small size of the population, its uniqueness not just to Hawai'i but on the planet, and the multiple serious threats that it's facing putting it on the endangered species list is the only reasonable outcome," said Michael Jasny, a policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The nonprofit environmental organization in October petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to list the whales as endangered.

UNIQUELY COASTAL

The request applies to what is known as Hawai'i's "insular" population of false killer whales, which the defense council said are the only known false killer whales in the world to live in a coastal habitat.

The whales, found around the main Hawaiian Islands, are genetically different and distinct from all other false killer whales, which are known as the "pelagic" population and live in open ocean areas.

"This indicates not only the uniqueness of the (Hawai'i) population, but also the biological importance of Hawaiian waters as an oasis for marine mammals," the defense council said.

Studies have found the population of Hawai'i's false killer whales to be in decline, with only about 120 animals remaining.

According to a National Marine Fisheries Service Web site, the population of pelagic false killer whales is 1,040, but environmentalists say a more recent estimate is 480.

The Hawai'i whales have dark coloration except for some lighter patches near the throat and middle chest, and are found in groups of 10 to 20.

In addition to injuries and death related to fishing, environmentalists point to toxic chemicals in the ocean and reduced food sources as impacting the false killer whales.

Separately, the National Marine Fisheries Service also has decided to create a "take reduction team" to determine ways to better protect all false killer whales, said David Henkin, an attorney with the environmental law firm Earthjustice.

In March, Earthjustice sued the federal fisheries service, claiming it had failed to devise a protection plan for the animals. Henkin said pressure from the lawsuit may have played a part in the creation of the take reduction team.

The National Marine Fisheries said that between 1994 and 2007, at least 24 false killer whales were hooked or entangled by the Hawai'i-based longline fishery.

According to Earthjustice, swordfish longline vessels trail up to 60 miles of fishing line suspended in the water with floats and as many as 1,000 baited hooks.

"We think they (the National Marine Fisheries) need to be looking at gear modification, they need to be looking at different ways to both put out the bait and haul the bait in," Henkin said. "They need to be looking at if there needs to be area closures at certain times of the year."

DATA QUESTIONED

Scott Barrows, general manager of the Hawai'i Longline Association, questions the data on false killer whales.

"As far as I'm concerned, the data is pretty poor, and regulating on poor data has in the past caused things to be done that shouldn't have been done," he said.

Barrows questions whether false killer whales are endangered. He said he fished for 20 years and that the whales would eat the bait off his gear without getting hooked: "It used to be maybe you'd get what we call 'whaled' (losing bait to whales) once or twice a year, and nowadays, I know a guy last trip who got whaled six times. So if there are so many less whales, why is this happening so much more?"

Barrows said the Hawai'i longliners have a $65 million impact on the economy just with the fish brought in and not including fuel and other related costs, but that the fleet represents only 3 percent of fishing in the Pacific.

"Even if they got rid of us completely, it would really not have much effect on any problem that's out there because we're so small of an entity," Barrows said of the Hawai'i longliners.

Still, Barrows said "if we have to (make changes with fishing), we have to, and if there is a problem, our attitude is, let's fix it, just as with the turtles and sea birds. We've done a lot to solve some of these problems."