Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, September 28, 2023

Contact:

Kristen Monsell, (914) 806-3467, kmonsell@biologicaldiversity.org

Federal Government to Form Team to Protect Pacific Humpbacks From Deadly Entanglements

SAN FRANCISCO— The National Marine Fisheries Service published a notice today announcing its intent to establish a team to reduce Pacific humpback whale entanglements in fishing gear. The Service committed to form a team by Oct. 31, 2025, under a legal agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity.

“Fishing gear entanglements regularly injure and kill Pacific humpbacks. This team offers a glimmer of hope for change,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center. “Humpbacks cycle nutrients that feed fish, delight whale-watchers and intrinsically improve the oceans. A dedicated team could keep these endangered whales from starving, suffering and dying in fishing gear. It can’t start soon enough.”

In March a federal court ruled in favor of the Center in a lawsuit challenging the Fisheries Service’s failure to protect endangered Pacific humpback whales from deadly entanglements in sablefish pot gear off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington. U.S. District Court Judge James Donato said the Service “cannot indefinitely delay developing a take reduction plan while continuing to authorize... permits for the incidental take of endangered and threatened humpback whales.”

Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, commercial fisheries that occasionally or frequently kill or seriously injure endangered marine mammals must have only a negligible impact on the species or population to qualify for an “incidental take” permit.

In 2021 the Service found a 400% increase in humpback mortality and serious injury from human activities since 2018.

According to agency estimates, the sablefish fishery kills or seriously injures at least one humpback whale every year. On average, about 25 humpback whales are entangled annually off the U.S. West Coast, and more than half the entanglements are not traced to a specific fishery. The sablefish fishery uses 2-mile-long strings of 30 to 50 pots.

To make all fishing safer, the Center has proposed that the Service require fisheries that use pot gear to convert to new ropeless or “pop-up” gear within the next five years. The petition urges the agency to prioritize this transition in national marine sanctuaries.

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

RSEndangledHumpbackWhale_NOAA_FPWC (1)
A response team led by the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary working closely with NOAA Fisheries successfully rescued an entangled humpback whale in 2013. Rescuers managed to cut away only 40 feet of trailing line on the first day of the response. But they also attached a satellite tag into the trailing gear allowing them to relocate the animal a few days later. During the second attempt they removed an additional 200 feet of line and two buoys completing the rescue. Photo credit: NOAA. Photo obtained under MMHSRP permit # 932-1905. Image is available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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