NMFS Sued for Allegedly Failing to Protect Humpback Whales

Humpback whales
2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Humpback whales photo: Ed Lyman/NOAA.

The Center for Biological Diversity has filed a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service for failing to protect endangered Pacific humpback whales from deadly entanglements in sablefish pot gear off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington.

The lawsuit, filed Jan. 10, challenges the federal permit given to the fishery in December. Fishing-gear entanglements are a major threat to endangered humpbacks that migrate along the West Coast, where 48,521 square nautical miles were designated as critical habitat last April.

“These migrating whales shouldn’t have to dodge deadly commercial fishing gear, especially in national marine sanctuaries,” Center for Biological Diversity attorney Catherine Kilduff said. “This is critical habitat for endangered humpbacks, but it’s full of long strings of fishing pots. Humpbacks are our magnificent, acrobatic neighbors, and we need to stop the increasing deaths in commercial fishing gear.”

As climate change alters migration patterns and availability of food for whales, it’s harder for endangered humpbacks to avoid commercial fishing gear.

According to Fisheries Service estimates, the sablefish fishery on average kills or seriously injures about two humpback whales every year. The fishery uses 2-mile-long strings of 30 to 50 pots. Commercial fisheries in total entangle 25 humpback whales annually off the U.S. West Coast, according to the center, with more than half of the entanglements not tied to a specific fishery.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Northern California, focuses on several of what the center calls ‘deficiencies’ in Fisheries Service analyses of the sablefish fishery’s impact. They include outdated humpback whale stock assessments, a failure to recognize the smallest humpback population as distinct and the failure to consider the service’s own evaluations of the growing whale entanglement threat.

The Fisheries Service has found a 400% increase in humpback mortality and serious injury from human activities, including vessel strikes, since 2018 estimates, according to the center.

2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits harming the creatures except under specific circumstances. Commercial fisheries that occasionally or frequently kill or seriously injure endangered marine mammals must have only a negligible impact on the species or stock to be able to obtain an incidental take permit.

To make fishing safer for whales and other imperiled animals, the center last month proposed that the Fisheries Service require all fisheries that use pot gear to covert to new ropeless or “pop-up” gear within the next five years. The petition requests that the agency prioritize the transition in national marine sanctuaries.

Most trap and pot fisheries use static vertical lines that can wrap around whales’ mouths, fins or tails, depleting their energy and drowning them as they drag the heavy traps. Pop-up traps use lift bags or buoys on coiled ropes triggered by remote or time-release sensors to float the traps to the surface, eliminating static entangling lines.