Plans To Protect Pacific Humpback Whales From Deadly Entanglements Finally Put In Place Following Major Court Win

The National Marine Fisheries Service agreed today to establish a team to reduce whale entanglements in a federal fishery off the West Coast in a legal agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity.

In March, a federal court ruled in favor of the Center in a lawsuit challenging the Fisheries Service’s failure to protect endangered Pacific humpback whales from deadly entanglements in sablefish pot gear off the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington.

“I’m relieved this agreement will give endangered humpbacks much-needed protections from entanglements, but the agency shouldn’t have been ignoring the whales to begin with,” said Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center. “Entanglements are truly horrific for humpback whales, causing starvation, severe injuries and usually death. We still can’t trace most entanglements to their source, but this commitment from the agency will put fewer lethal obstacles in humpbacks’ way.”

The Center last year challenged an agency permit that horrifically allowed the fishery to entangle and kill endangered humpback whales without any measures to reduce that harm or a clear plan to implement measures in the near future.

In his March ruling, U.S. District Court Judge James Donato said the Service “cannot indefinitely delay developing a take reduction plan while continuing to authorize…permits for the incidental take of endangered and threatened humpback whales.”

Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, commercial fisheries that occasionally or frequently kill or seriously injure endangered marine mammals must have only a negligible impact on the species or population to qualify for an “incidental take” permit.

In 2021 the Service found a 400% increase in humpback mortality and serious injury from human activities since 2018.

According to agency estimates, the sablefish fishery kills or seriously injures at least one humpback whale every year. On average, about 25 humpback whales are entangled annually off the U.S. West Coast, and more than half the entanglements are not traced to a specific fishery. The sablefish fishery uses 2-mile-long strings of 30 to 50 pots.

To make all fishing safer, the Center has proposed that the Service require fisheries that use pot gear to convert to new ropeless or “pop-up” gear within the next five years. The petition urges the agency to prioritize this transition in national marine sanctuaries.

Most trap and pot fisheries use static vertical lines that can wrap around whales’ mouths, fins or tail, wounding them and depleting their energy, often drowning them as they drag heavy traps and rope. Pop-up traps use bags or buoys on coiled ropes triggered by remote or time-release sensors to float the traps to the surface, eliminating static entangling lines.

The Service will establish the team to reduce whale entanglements by October 31, 2025.

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