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Fish nets snaring false killer whales in Hawaii

January 19, 2010 |  6:31 pm

False killer whale

They look like killer whales but are actually dolphins -- 1,500 pounds worth, in the case of adult males. Many of these "false killer whales" have long populated the waters off of Hawaii, some animals for as long as 20 years. But their numbers in the waters off the islands have been dwindling.

Among the culprits are the commercial operations that, while fishing for tuna and swordfish, trail up to 60 miles of fishing line behind their vessels, threaded with as many as 1,000 baited hooks -- some of which inadvertently snare false killer whales in the process.

The National Marine Fisheries Service announced that it is establishing a "take reduction team" that will consider ways to reduce harm to false killer whales, whose numbers around the Hawaiian shores may now number only a little more than 120. About 480 others live in Hawaiian waters farther offshore. (Others can be found elsewhere on both U.S. coasts and in temperate waters around the world.)

False killer whale range map 

David Henkin, an attorney for the law firm Earthjustice that represented three conservation groups in litigation pushing for the review, said false killer whales also face threats from other fishing, loss of food as a result of overfishing, and chemical contamination from human-caused sources, such as PCBs.

But long-line fishing is an obvious threat -- the National Marine Fisheries Service has photos (reproduced on the Earthjustice link) documenting several of the animals snared in fishing lines -- and it is a peril, regulation advocates say, that can be addressed.

"Literally from one day to the next, we can change the fishing practices and cut down on a significant source of injury and mortality," Henkin said.

The NMFS is currently conducting a study to determine whether the small "insular" population of false killer whales near shore warrants protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, which petitioned for the listing last fall, noted that the species' limited numbers, in addition to outside threats, render it at an inherent genetic risk of extinction.

Federal authorities said at least 24 false killer whales were seen hooked or tangled in the long-line fishery between 1994 and 2007.

The take reduction team will begin meeting Feb. 17 in Honolulu and will look at fishing threats not only to the "insular" mammals but also to other false killer whales farther offshore around the Hawaiian islands. The team will present a proposed plan within six months to NMFS, which then will decide whether to issue regulations to protect the animals.

-- Kim Murphy

Photo: A false killer whale snared in a fishing line. Credit: National Marine Fisheries Service, Earthjustice. The map represents the approximate range of the dolphins. Credit: National Marine Fisheries Service, Office of Protected Resources