March 21st, 2016. OAKLAND, Calif.— The National Marine Fisheries Service’s proposed plan for monitoring humpback whales ignores one of the fastest-growing threats to this iconic species : entanglement in fishing gear. Along the West Coast, a record 31 humpbacks were caught in fishing gear in 2015, according to new federal data.
The draft monitoring plan is required before the Fisheries Service can finalize its proposal to remove Endangered Species Act protections from most populations of humpback whales.
“Humpbacks are recovering, thanks to the power of the Endangered Species Act, but the job isn’t done. Entanglement in fishing gear is one of several serious and growing threats these whales face, so it’s premature to end protections now,” said Kristen Monsell, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “At the very least, this monitoring plan needs to address the rising number of West Coast whale entanglements.”
The Fisheries Service last year proposed to divide humpbacks into 14 distinct populations and remove Endangered Species Act protections from 10 of them, including one group that migrates and feeds along the West Coast. The Act requires that the federal government implement a system, in cooperation with the states, to monitor delisted species for at least five years. If a decline in the species or an increase in threats is detected, the system is supposed to halt that decline or threat increase. The release of the draft post-delisting humpback monitoring plan signals that the Fisheries Service intends to finalize its proposed rule.
Yet the draft plan has no mechanisms for tracking entanglements — other than opportunistic sightings — or for facilitating identification of what type of fishing gear is wrapped around whales, making it difficult to prevent future entanglements. Also, California, where the vast majority of whale entanglements have been reported, is not a collaborator on the monitoring plan. In addition to entanglements, humpback whales in California face increasing threats from climate change, ocean noise and offshore aquaculture.
The Fisheries Service is well aware of the West Coast whale entanglement issue and has been working with stakeholder and environmental groups to monitor and address the problem, with a working group issuing recommendations in October calling for better data collection and expansion of lost-gear recovery programs. The latest entanglement data from the agency from 2015 show that the numbers more than doubled the previous record-setting total from 2014. Most whales reported entangled (52 of the 62 reported, 49 of which were confirmed by the agency) suffered an unknown fate, while officials reported that four whales were partially or completely disentangled, four self-released, and two were killed. Dragging heavy fishing gear can injure or kill the whales, depleting their energy or cutting into flesh, which can cause infections or prevent mobility.
“This is a problem we should solve before we consider relaxing protections for humpback whales,” Monsell said. “We shouldn’t be in a hurry to declare that humpbacks have been saved when so many threats are on the rise.”