Nearly nine years ago, responding to a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Marine Fisheries Service determined that the insular population of false killer whales around the Main Hawaiian Islands constituted a distinct population segment and merited protection under the Endangered Species Act.
A take reduction plan was developed, with the expectation that, within six months of its implementation, fewer animals from both the pelagic and insular stocks would be injured or killed as a result of interactions with longline gear. For the insular stock, the target was to hold mortality or serious injury (M&SI) to 0.3 animals per year – or about one animal every three years. For the pelagic stock, whose range overlaps the insular stock’s and extends to the high seas, it was expected that the M&SI rate would be held to less than nine animals a year.
Longer term, the measures proposed in the plan were to reduce within five years the M&SI rate of both populations to insignificant levels approaching zero.
So how has that worked out?
“Those goals have not been met,” said Ann Garrett, protected resources supervisor at NMFS’ Pacific Islands Regional Office, in her presentation to the federal Marine Mammal Commission. The commission held its annual meeting in Kona last May.
The plan had specified certain gear changes: weaker hooks that could be more easily straightened and stronger branch lines that wouldn’t break off and end up causing further injury to false killer whales incidentally caught by the longliners. Also, captains were to be notified whenever a false killer whale was hooked and were to receive training in how to release them.
From 2013 through 2018, Garrett said, “the vast majority of times, the line was cut or broke.” On just four occasions in that five-year period did the crew manage to straighten a hook; one time, the hook itself broke. Overall, 39 percent of interactions terminated when the line was cut, while the line broke in 29 percent. Nearly three quarters of the interactions – 73 percent – resulted in mortalities or serious injuries, Garrett said.
How many times was an animal released free of gear?
“We determined that the plan isn’t meeting all its goals and objectives,” Gar- rett said, mastering the understatement. The take reduction team (TRT) began drafting new recommendations to amend the take reduction plan, she said, noting that the number of meetings the team has had is “unusual.” Most of the teams set up for other endangered species may have just one annual meeting. The team dealing with the Hawai‘i insular population of false killer whales “continues to have regular calls instead of just an annual meeting.”
Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity, the group that originally petitioned to have the insular stock listed as endangered, is also a member of the take reduction team. He told the commission that the reason the original plan didn’t work was because it simply wasn’t implemented. “We were to have a 4.0 (mm) hook, according to the criteria set out by the team, and NMFS proposed that as a regulation. But the final regulation proposed a 4.5 hook, which was status quo for much of the fishery,” he said.
“The fact that the plan didn’t work was masked by the fact that new abundance estimates” were developed, he said. But in fact, the actual M&SI didn’t go down.
“It’s taken a decade for people to recognize that, … and now we’re at a point where we agree there’s a need to move to a weaker hook. The sticking point is, what trade-offs need to happen.”
Eric Kingma, formerly with the Western Pacific Fisheries Management Council (Wespac), is now executive director of the Hawai‘i Longline Association, which represents owners of most of the longline vessels that interact with the Hawai‘i false killer whales. He defended his members’ efforts to reduce interactions, blaming the failure to adopt the weaker hook on NMFS: “We understand there was an initiative to get the necessary research done,” he said. “The proposal wasn’t done in time. NMFS didn’t finish that process.”
As to increasing the strength of the branch line, “We understand that suppli- ers are looking into getting this available,” he said.
He also praised the Hawai‘i fleet for the level of observer coverage, which is around 20 percent on the deep-set longline vessels. Elsewhere in the Pacific, “foreign fleets … are subject to five percent observer coverage, and many fleets don’t reach that at all … No other fleet is even close.”
Asuka Ishizaki, Wespac’s protected resources coordinator, said that Wespac was looking at ways to minimize depredation on the longliners’ bait by the false killer whales. “Until we can address depredation,” she said, “we can’t address interaction issues,” adding that the council has been looking at a device that might prevent this. “There are operational challenges” to deploying it, however, she noted.
In addition, Ishizaki said the council had concerns with the way in which a hooking is determined to be a mortality or serious injury. “Most interactions result in the animal being released alive, but because of the gear remaining around the head, it’s considered to be a serious injury. But this is NMFS policy, not statute”.
The council, she said, “wants more research.”
Erin Oleson, a research ecologist with NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, addressed the issue of how mortality and serious injury is determined. “What we draw on quite a lot is the long-term prog- nosis of bottlenose dolphins with hooks,” she said. “That is still for us the best available data.”
She added, though, that NMFS is just now beginning to re-evaluate the criteria for serious injury and has set up a national working group.
Ann Garrett spoke to the need for changes in the take reduction plan. “About November, December of last year, the [take reduction] team was making considerable progress. I thought we were close to con- sensus recommendations. Then we ended up with the government shutdown, which put things behind schedule,” she said.
Following that, there were “additional takes” – reported hookings of false killer whales earlier this year that resulted in NMFS closing off a large swath of the ocean south of the Hawaiian Islands to longliners, as called for in the take reduction plan.
“That,” Garrett said, “changed the tenor of the discussion in the team to some degree.” However, NMFS has already begun to
look into some of these recommendations, especially with regard to research. “We’ve allocated funds for that, to take a look at new gear configuration, run trials with longline vessels.”
“Also,” she added, “internally, we’re talking about handling and training, which seems like a fairly easy thing to overcome. It’s not without complexity, due to language barriers …. But we’re talking about revamping training to reach the crews and not just captains.”
Kristy Long of NOAA’s Office of Protected Resources reported that a draft recovery plan for the insular false killer whale population is expected to be released for public comment in late summer or early fall.
The plan has been a long time coming.
In October 2013, Long said, NOAA published a notice of its intent to prepare a recovery plan. Three years later, it developed a 23-page “recovery outline.” In October 2017, it held a four-day recovery workshop. Only in April of this year did it submit a draft species status assessment and draft recovery plan for peer review.
“We hope to finish the recovery plan by next summer,” she said.
As to the cost of implementing the plan, Long said, “We estimate the cost out over 50 years plus inflation [to] be between $75 and $100 million, but who knows if that’s what it’ll actually cost.”
Closer to Home
The longline fleet rarely interacts with the insular population of false killer whales, since most of the range of that population is closer to the Main Hawaiian Islands than the longliners are allowed to fish.
Not so with respect to other gear types.
Robin Baird of the Cascadia Research Collective drove home this point in his presentation to the commission. Baird pioneered research into false killer whales with his extensive survey and tagging program, begun more than two decades ago.
In Hawai‘i, he noted, there are more than 3,000 commercial marine license holders, and the retained catch of pelagic species by this sector amounts to between four million and five million pounds a year.
The haul from the unlicensed recreational fishers is even greater, he noted, estimated at between 11 million and 17 million pounds per year.
In addition, there are 567 licenses for bottomfish fishers in the main Hawaiian islands, 459 licenses for tuna handline fisheries, and more than 100 licenses for charter fishers.
“And there’s no observer program in any of these fisheries,” he said.
Yet almost certainly, these fisheries interact with the insular false killer whales.
In addition to broadening the discussions to include fisheries other than the longline vessels, Baird also expanded it to address interactions between all fisheries and other species of marine mammals, including bottlenose dolphins, pilot whales, pygmy killer whales, short-finned pilot whales, and monk seals.
“Of the eleven species where there is evidence of insular populations,” Baird said, “only five have had recognized insular stocks designated by NMFS” – even though the “evidence for others is quite conclusive.”
Of the pygmy killer whales, he said, 43 percent have evidence of interactions with fisheries. “It’s baffling for us,” he noted. “In all our encounters with pygmy killer whales, we’ve never seen them feeding during the day. They interact with gear at night.”
In addition, he said, the pygmy killer whales seen “represent individuals that have survived fishery interactions, and thus indicate the extent of depredation behavior rather than how many may be seriously injured or killed” as a result of the interactions.