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Killer Whale Hookings Threaten Longline Tuna Fishing United States, March 7, 13

Earlier this week, the National Marine Fisheries Service confirmed that, on Jan. 29, a false killer whale in Hawaiian waters sustained injuries likely to be fatal when it was hooked by a Hawaii-based longline tuna fishing boat.

Under the Fisheries Service’s False Killer Whale Take Reduction Plan, a second such hooking of a false killer whale in Hawaiian waters this calendar year will trigger the closure to tuna longline fishing of a 112,575 square nautical mile area to the south of the main Hawaiian Islands where fishery interactions with false killer whales frequently occur.

The Fisheries Service issued the plan in November 2012 in response to a series of lawsuits brought by Earthjustice on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network to protect Hawaii’s false killer whales from unsustainable levels of death and serious injury in the longline fishery.

“The hooking and likely lethal injury of a false killer whale less than a month into 2013 should be a wake-up call to longline fishers that they need to put the protection plan into effect immediately or risk closure of their fishing grounds,” said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity, who served on the working group the Fisheries Service convened to help develop the plan. “The plan requires weaker hooks and stronger lines precisely to prevent this type of harm.”

In the Jan. 29, 2013 incident, the false killer whale was hooked in the mouth. As the crew reeled it in, the branch line broke, releasing the whale with an estimated 20-to-30-feet of the branch line, all of the leader (about one foot), and the hook still attached.

The Fisheries Service concluded that the incident was a “serious injury” -- one likely to lead to death -- because hookings in the mouth with substantial amount of gear still attached prevent the animal from eating and/or cause drowning through entanglement.

The protection plan requires longline fishers to switch to the use of “weak hooks” that are strong enough to hold an ahi tuna, the fishery’s target species, but weak enough to allow a larger, stronger false killer whale to straighten the hook and pull it out, avoiding serious injury.

The plan also requires stronger branch lines that will not break during marine mammal hookings. These gear modification requirements did not take effect until Feb. 27, a month after the fatal hooking.

“The Fisheries Service dragged its feet for over a decade, requiring three lawsuits before it finally complied with the Marine Mammal Protection Act and issued a plan to address false killer whale deaths in the Hawai‘i-based longline fishery,” said Earthjustice attorney David Henkin, the lead attorney in the lawsuits. “Had the Fisheries Service acted sooner, as Congress intended, this latest tragedy likely could have been avoided.”