False Killer Whale Team Fails to Reach Consensus on New Protection Measures

posted in: May 2018 | 0
False killer whale. Credit: Robin Baird

It’s been five years since the National Marine Fisheries Service adopted a take reduction plan (TRP) to address the Hawai‘i longline fleet’s interactions with false killer whales (FKW). The plan required vessels to use stronger branch lines and weaker hooks so hooked whales could free themselves without much harm or trailing fishing gear. But that plan has failed to reduce the number of FKW killed or seriously injured by the fleet. In fact, that number has only increased.

The federal FKW take reduction team, which advises the National Marine Fisheries Service on protection measures, met in Waikiki for nearly a week last month to try to work out an approach to change that trend. But as the week drew to a close, fishing industry representatives demanded that gear changes be contingent on reducing the size of a large area that under current regulations must close to fishing in the event of excessive FKW takes. As a result, the team failed to reach consensus before the meeting’s end. This, despite a strong admonition from NMFS Pacific Islands Regional Office Protected Species Division supervisor Ann Garrett.

“I asked you this week to walk slowly and not walk backwards. We’ve walked very, very slowly and our time is almost up today,” she said, then warned: “I don’t need a consensus recommendation to act.”

She noted that 34 percent of the time FKW have been hooked by the Hawai‘i longline fishery since the plan was adopted, the branch lines, which are strung between the main line and the bait, broke. And given that, she said she could immediately start the process to require branch line strength to be increased.

“That’s not what I want to do. I want it to come from this team,” she said.

She did not get what she wanted. With time running out, and team members from the fishing industry and conservation and scientific communities unable to agree on quid pro quo arrangement, the team agreed to simply continue discussions remotely.

Missing Goals

The 2013 take reduction plan set two goals, one short-term and one long-term. The short-term goal was to reduce, within six months of implementation, mortalities or serious injuries (M&SI) of the pelagic and endangered insular FKW stocks caused by the Hawai‘i longline fisheries within the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone around the islands to less than the stocks’ potential biological removal (PBR) levels, which is the number of animals that can be removed from a population without risking its chance of survival. In the case of pelagic stocks, the annual number was 9.1; for insular stocks, 0.3. That goal has been met.

The number of whale M&SI interactions within the EEZ has never reached levels that exceeded the stock’s PBR levels in a given year, which, at the current 20 percent level of observer coverage would be two. (Because vessels on trips without an observer almost never report interactions with endangered species, the number of observed takes is assumed to equal just 20 percent of total takes.) Had there been two reported takes, it would have triggered the closure of an area south of the Main Hawaiian Islands known as the southern exclusion zone (SEZ).

The long-term goal of the take reduction plan, however, has not been met. The gear and area closure measures in the plan were supposed to reduce, within five years, the incidental M&SI of the FKW stocks “to insignificant levels approaching a zero mortal- ity and serious injury rate (i.e., less than 10 percent of their respective PBR levels).” The M&SI take has actually increased, from 26 in the five years preceding the TRP, to 27 for the five-year period following the plan’s implementation.

In fact, the Hawai‘i longline fleet (mainly the deep-set fishery, which targets tuna) doubled the number of FKW it killed or seriously injured on the high seas in the post-TRP period. Between 2013 and April 10 of this year, there have been 39 observed false killer whale interactions with the fleet, only eight of which were within the EEZ, according to Kevin Brindock of NMFS’s Protected Resources Division. Of those 39 observed interactions, three resulted in death and 24 resulted in a serious injury.

One of those serious injuries occurred within the EEZ this year. Should another occur before December 31, the SEZ would be closed to longlining.

In only four cases did the whales straighten the hooks and swim free. In the remainder of the cases, the lines either broke or were cut by the crew.

However high the number of FKW interactions on the high seas goes, unless a change is made to the TRP, it’s unlikely to trigger any type of closure. And any effort to set a closure trigger based on takes of that part of the pelagic FKW stock that spans the high seas would be difficult, if not impossible. The pelagic stock abundance estimate and PBR are based on information only from within the EEZ around Hawai‘i “because that is where the stock’s abundance has been assessed, even though the stock’s range (and fishery bycatch) extends into the adjacent high seas. Mortality and serious injury of this stock outside the EEZ (where there is no PBR) is not factored into the evaluation of stock status,” the most recent stock assessment for FKW states. A new stock assessment is expected to be complete sometime next year.

The geographic range of the pelagic FKW stock beyond the Hawaiian Islands EEZ is poorly known, a NMFS 2015 report on the whales states.

Fixing the Problem

In characterizing the FKW takes over the past five years, Brindock noted that there has been no clear trend of where or what time of year interactions occurred within the EEZ. What was clear was that the weak hooks were not performing as intended. Given that, the discussion among team members focused on how to tweak the gear requirements to meet the long-term goal of reducing M&SI to zero.

After conferring in small work groups, the team seemed willing to agree that another study would be done on an even weaker hook type than the one being used by the fleet. Before the current TRP was adopted, a study was done to test the efficacy of a range of weaker hooks in retaining large tuna. While the TRT had recommended the fleet switch to a 4.0 mm wire diameter circle hook, NMFS adopted rules calling for a slightly stronger 4.5 mm hook, instead, to allay concerns that a 4.0 hook would let too many prized large tuna go free.

This time around, the study would evaluate the efficacy of 4.2 mm hooks.

On the eve of the last day of the TRT meeting, however, representatives from the Hawai‘i longline industry and the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council an- nounced that they would not agree to any set of measures that did not address the SEZ, which they have argued would provide no additional protection to the whales since the fleet has interacted with so few there.

(In March, the council, which has a representative on the TRT, had voted to not support any new gear or closure measures under the TRP until new abundance estimates resulting from NOAA’s 2017 cetacean survey are available for review by the council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee. It also found that the removal of the SEZ should be considered by the TRT. It’s unclear how many team members were aware of the council’s position at the start of the meeting, but a March 22 letter from council executive director Kitty Simonds to NMFS PIRO administrator Michael Tosatto detailing the council’s position was eventually provided to team members before the last day of its meeting.)

With only a day to draft a measure regarding the SEZ, team member Brendan Cummings, of the non-profit Center for Biological Diversity, proposed eliminating the SEZ if and when a weak hook requirement was adopted following experimentation. While the hook was being studied, the longliners would switch to stronger branch lines. In return, the SEZ closure regulations would be suspended for two years, until the end of 2020.

“That’s our proposal for this. The SEZ remains on the books, but the actual on-the-water threat to the fishermen is suspended,” he said. If the weak hook turned out not to be feasible, the team would reconvene to discussion options after the two-year SEZ suspension.

That was not good enough for team member Ryan Steen, an attorney with the law firm Stoel Reeves, which represents the Hawai‘i Longline Association. He had proposed that the longline fleet would immediately start implementing stronger branch lines in exchange for a commitment to reduce the SEZ by half.

“The SEZ, no matter what formulation, it’s a penalty to the fishermen. Whether half size or full size. We’re not suggesting the SEZ go away entirely. … The SEZ has always been a point of contention because it’s a closed ground,” he said, noting that the expansion of marine national monuments since the current plan was adopted has left Hawai‘i longliners with a much smaller portion of the EEZ to fish in.

“The problem I see with Brendan’s idea, it has some merit, but if for any reason the 4.2 hook ends up not being adopted, [and] the branch line [is] effective all by itself … we get nothing for it,” added team member and longline vessel owner John LaGrange.

For team member Andy Read, of the Duke University Marine Lab, reducing the SEZ by half was not going to happen. “We heard yesterday Ryan was not willing to go to a weak hook now. … We wanted an experiment for a 4.0 [hook]. We’re not getting that. We’re getting 4.2. … I personally feel I’ve come a long way. I’ve given a lot up and you’re asking me to take another step back I’m not willing to take. I want a 4.0 hook. … A stronger branch line is not the same thing,” he told Garrett.

Everyone seemed to agree that more crew training on how to best handle the longline to free the whales would probably save a few of them. But team members continued to debate the SEZ issue until the end.

With about ten minutes left, Steen recommended ending the discussion. “I think we’re all running out of steam. We’re not going to find the missing piece,” he said.

The group then committed to trying to hammer out an agreeable set of measures sometime this summer, whether via email, phone or webinar.

— Teresa Dawson

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