Wespac Balks at Accepting Grim Report on Risks to Insular False Killer Whales

posted in: Fisheries, Marine, November 2010 | 0

They may be the spitting image of their distant cousins found in warm waters across the globe, but the false killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens) that live around the Main Hawaiian Islands are so different that they constitute a so-called “distinct population segment.” What’s more, with a total population somewhere between 120 and 170 individuals, they are at substantial risk of extinction over the next 75 years.

The DPS finding and the determination of their extinction risk were made by a group of eight fisheries biologists, all employed by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Their exhaustive, 237-page status review report, which was released by NMFS in September, is the most recent in a series of documents addressing the health of the small Hawaiian insular false killer whale population that have been prepared in response to a petition, filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council on October 1, 2009, to list the population as endangered.

The report makes it almost a foregone conclusion that NMFS will find that the population qualifies for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act. Once that occurs, the fishing industry in Hawai`i will likely face additional restrictions on its operations to protect the animals – big dolphins, really – from interactions with fishing gear.

It was hardly surprising, then, to see members of the Western Pacific Fisheries Management Council greet the report with something less than enthusiasm when it was presented to them at the council’s meeting last month. After summarizing the report’s conclusions, Erin Oleson, lead author, was grilled by council member Sean Martin, owner of several longline vessels. Martin pointed to a survey from 2009 that suggested the insular population might be more robust than the BRT suggested, with four sightings of false killer whales made in nearshore waters.

Oleson replied that the sightings were “not adequate” for the purposes of the Biological Review Team put together by NMFS from the agency’s scientists. “There’s significant evidence of attraction to vessels” by false killer whales, she said. “And there’s no way of accounting for that.” The sightings in the survey didn’t pass muster with the BRT’s data quality assessment, she said.

Nonetheless, the council took action intended to stall NMFS’ action on the listing petition for the insular false killer whales. Martin made a motion that the status report be sent for “independent review” by the Center for Independent Experts, a private organization set up to evaluate NMFS reports.

Martin’s motion went on to say that the council “has concerns about the composition of the Biological Review Team, comprising entirely NMFS staff” and excluding “experts outside the agency knowledgeable in the field of cetacean risk assessment.” Further, the motion stated, the report’s assumption that the false killer whales compete for the same prey taken by commercial fisheries “doesn’t include an independent analysis of prey abundance,” there were “potential shortcomings” in the report’s genetic analysis of the stock, and there was a “lack of any key demographic parameters to diagnose the status and trends” of the insular population.

Laura Thielen, head of the Hawai`i Department of Land and Natural Resources who was attending her last meeting as a council member, said she had no objection to sending the report out for independent review, but “all the editorial comment” in the motion was not needed.

Mike Tosatto, acting head of the NMFS Pacific Island Regional Office, said that the report had already undergone review by independent scientists before it was released by the agency. “It won’t go out for [further] review,” he told the council.

Sam Pooley, who directs NMFS’ Pacific Islands Fishery Science Center – the office that supervised production of the report – pointed out to council members that by law, “we can only include as members of the Biological Review Team federal employees…. As Mike said, [the report] has gone out to peer review to people outside the agency. That review was incorporated into the report itself. As far as matters such as prey abundance and so forth are concerned, two experts in that area were on the panel.”

But Martin defended the language of the motion. “I am disappointed with what I felt was inadequate explanations as to why some available information was determined not to be usable… In fairness to industry, this needs to be the best document it can be, and for that to be done, it does need further review. Internal review is sometimes not as objective as [review] by outside folks.”

Martin’s motion passed, with just three council members – Thielen, Tosatto, and David Itano, the only fisheries scientist on the panel – not voting with the majority.

Additional Concerns

The council then went on to adopt a motion calling for staff to convey to NMFS its concerns over the flaws in the status review report in the event that NMFS finds the animals’ situation warrants listing. Manny Duenas, council member from Guam, warned of dire consequences to sectors other than the longline fishery. “In reading the document, there was a lot of reference to fishing – every fishing you can imagine. If you look at the movement pattern of one of these false killer whales, it’s pretty close to shoreline. How would that affect the charter, handline, all these recreational boats? They might all be closed off… If you have a problem with the whale sanctuary, be cautious about this decision.”
Martin agreed. “This has significant implications for other than fishers,” he said. “It does warrant pretty close scrutiny by a much larger range of interested parties than just the fishing industry.”
Again, Thielen objected, noting that it was premature to say that the council had concerns about a study before it had the benefit of independent review. No one else on the council joined with her in voting against the motion.

* * *
‘Elections,’ Council-Style

In a putsch that would have made a Latin American dictator blush, Manny Duenas, the blustering council member from Guam, anointed himself the new chairman of Wespac. On the last day of the council meeting, when the agenda item “election of council officers” came up for discussion, Duenas took the microphone. “The delegates representing island units have worked on a slew of names,” he said. “Sorry, Mr. Chairman,” he said to current chairman Stephen Haleck of American Samoa, “there’s some changes. It looks like I’m going to take over next year.”

No vote was taken to ratify the slate of officers Duenas rattled off. No member voiced any objection to the process.

In the past, the council has gone through the motions of ratifying the decisions of the nominating committee (which usually was made up of the vice chairs representing the four island areas). Last October, for example, then-chairman Sean Martin asked for discussion and, when no one voiced any comments or concerns, asked that the slate be approved by acclamation.

According to the council’s Statement of Organization Practices and Procedures, the council chairman “is elected by a majority of the voting members present and voting.” Vice chairmen are also to be elected, one from each of the island areas.

In his six years on the council, Duenas has forged a close relationship with Kitty Simonds. They share a strong opposition to the establishment of marine reserves in the Pacific, among other things. When public hearings were being held three years ago on the proposal for a marine sanctuary around parts of the Northern Marianas Islands, Duenas was called out for his rude behavior. Duenas later apologized to the council for his actions, saying he was not representing the council when he disrupted meetings, but rather was acting in his role as president of the Guam Fishermen’s Cooperative. (For details, see the article in the May 2008 issue of Environment Hawai`i,“Fisheries Council Approves Proposal to Raise Caps on Turtle Interactions.”)


Patricia Tummons


Volume 21, Number 5 — November 2010


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