Comment Open on Draft Recovery Plan for MHI False Killer Whale Population

On October 16, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that a draft recovery plan for the Main Hawaiian Islands insular population of false killer whales had been prepared and was open for public comment.

The insular population, numbering 167 individuals, was listed as endangered in November 2012, but until now, no recovery plan had been prepared. Recovery plans for federally listed endangered species, or, as in this case, a distinct population segment (DPS) of a species, spell out the threats and the criteria for either downlisting (categorizing it as threatened) or delisting it altogether.

Most of the area presumed to be inhabited by the clusters of insular false killer whales is already off-limits to longline fishing vessels, whose interactions with false killer whales impact the wider-ranging pelagic population. According to the draft recovery plan, “commercial longline fisheries have very little overlap (about 5.4 percent) with the range of the [insular false killer whale population] due to a longline fishing prohibited area around the Main Hawaiian Islands.” (The interaction of longliners with pelagic false killer whales is discussed in another article in this issue of Environment Hawai‘i.)

But even if the insular population doesn’t interact much, if at all, with longliners, it is still thought to interact with non-longline commercial and recreational fisheries, such as troll, handline, kaka line (where the line is set on or near the bottom or in shallow mid-water), and shortline fisheries. For all of these non-longline fisheries, regulatory and reporting schemes are practically non-existent.

Vessels in these fisheries carry no observers, their owners have no reporting requirements, and their crews have no training in handling false killer whales and other protected species such as turtles and seabirds with which they may interact. This means that the degree of harm to the population caused by these fisheries is unknown. But that they do cause harm is evident in the scars on dorsal fins and mouthline injuries that are seen by researchers and scientists studying these animals.

One of the actions recommended in the draft plan is that threats from the non-longline fishing sector be addressed, “including incidental take and competition with fisheries for prey. Specifically, determine how, why, and which non- longline commercial and/or recreational fishery or fisheries may be causing serious injury and/or mortality by implementing adequate reporting requirements for those fisheries, coupled with enhanced outreach with fishermen who may interact with MHI FKWs. Implement management actions as needed to reduce incidental take and competition with fisheries, and monitor their effectiveness.”

Other threats to the population called out in the plan include reduced prey size and abundance; environmental contaminants that bioaccumulate in the whales (for example, PCBs, pesticides such as DDT, and heavy metals) and naturally occurring toxins; changes to the ocean climate including warming, acidification, and low-productivity zones; harmful dis- ease vectors that may increase as a result of climate change; anthropogenic noise; and marine debris.

Recovery to the point the population is delisted is expected to take at least 50 years and “assumes an increasing average annual population trend … greater than or equal to 2 percent over two generations and assumes high resource investment into implementation of recovery actions,” the plan states, with a minimum popula- tion of 406 individuals. “If resource investment into recovery is low to moderate or if the average annual population trend is not increasing at the predicted rate, then this timeframe may need to be revised.” The earliest possible time scenario, NOAA says, is “at least 25 years based on the current reclassification criteria.”

The cost? “We estimate the total cost of recovery over a minimum of 50 years to be at least $346,866,000.”

The draft plan is available for public comment through December 15. For more information, see: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2020/10/16/2020-22950/ endangered-and-threatened-species- draft-recovery-plan-and-draft-recovery- implementation-strategy-for. 

— Patricia Tummons

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