The following is a press release issued by the Center for Biological Diversity:
The Center for Biological Diversity sued NOAA Fisheries today to force it to protect endangered Pacific humpback whales from entanglements in California drift gillnets. In the past two fishing seasons an estimated 12 Pacific humpbacks were caught in the California drift gillnet fishery, according to federal reports.
The fishery’s excessive harm to endangered humpback whales violates the Endangered Species Act, today’s lawsuit notes. The fishery uses mile-long hanging nets, left in the ocean overnight, to catch large fish like Pacific bluefin tuna, swordfish and thresher sharks. As the lawsuit points out, NOAA Fisheries also failed to adequately analyze the fishery’s impact on the humpback populations that were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2016.
“This struggling humpback whale population faces numerous threats, and these absurdly huge nets are one more hazard they can’t avoid,” said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney at the Center. “Whales off California are swimming through a treacherous gillnet gauntlet, and we need to get the nets out of their habitat to give them a chance to recover. But the Fisheries Service is sitting on its hands while whales suffer.”
To remedy these legal violations, the Center is recommending that the Service close the area in Southern California where two humpback whales were recently entangled and ensure the fishery is not jeopardizing the continued existence of the species.
Fishing gear entanglements are a leading threat to migratory endangered humpbacks along the West Coast, where 48,521 square nautical miles were designated as critical habitat for the species in April 2021.
West Coast humpback whale entanglement reports increased sharply from 2014 to 2017, reaching a record high of 53 entanglements in 2016. Since then, whale entanglements have remained elevated. NOAA Fisheries has observed fewer than 20% of gillnet sets in the past two fishing seasons, which means that because two were seen tangled in nets, an estimated 11.7 humpbacks were caught. Entanglements can lead to death, injury and lower calving rates in whales.
The most imperiled humpback population — which winters in Central America — has about 1,500 individuals and feeds almost exclusively off California and Oregon. The threatened Mexico population has about 2,900 individuals.
Legislative efforts to phase out the fishery include California Senate Bill 1017, which was signed into law on Sept. 27, 2018. The legislation directed the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to establish a voluntary transition program to incentivize drift gillnet permittees to transition out of the drift gillnet shark and swordfish fishery.
Bipartisan federal legislation that would have gradually ended the use of drift gillnets off the West Coast was vetoed by President Trump at the end of 2020.
“California’s drift gillnet law was a great step, but we’ve seen that it isn’t enough to keep humpbacks from getting entangled,” said Kilduff. “We also need federal agencies to do their part and protect this dwindling population from harm.”