California Drift Gillnets Entangled About 12 Humpback Whales in 2021

California Drift Gillnets Entangled About 12 Humpback Whales in 2021

SAN FRANCISCO— After new federal reports estimated that the California drift gillnet fishery caught about 12 Pacific humpbacks in 2021, the Center for Biological Diversity warned the National Marine Fisheries Service today to expect to be sued for failing to protect these endangered whales from entanglements in drift nets.

Today’s legal notice points out that the West Coast fishery — which has recently targeted Pacific bluefin tuna — operates without Endangered Species Act authorization to harm or kill humpback whales. The fishery uses mile-long hanging nets left in the ocean overnight to catch large fish like bluefin tuna, swordfish and thresher sharks.

“The drift gillnet fishery continues to indiscriminately and unlawfully ensnare California’s treasured marine wildlife, and federal officials need to act,” said Catherine Kilduff, an attorney at the Center. “Humpback whales can’t avoid these enormous floating nets set in the path of their long-distance migrations. The Fisheries Service has to confront this deadly threat.”

Fishing gear entanglements are a leading threat to endangered humpbacks migrating along the West Coast. The information estimating that 11.7 humpbacks were caught in 2021 was reported by the Fisheries Service here and here. West Coast humpback whale entanglement reports increased sharply in the years 2014 to 2017, reaching a record high of 53 humpback whale entanglements reported in 2016. Since then, whale entanglements have remained elevated.

Today’s notice letter criticizes the Fisheries Service’s failure to analyze the fishery’s impact on the humpback populations that were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2016. The most imperiled humpback population — which winters in Central America — has only 750 individuals and feeds almost exclusively off California and Oregon. The threatened Mexico population has about 2,900 individuals.

To remedy these legal violations, the agency should close the area in Southern California where two entanglements were observed because humpback whales are transiting. The Center says that the closure should be in place until the Fisheries Service completes its consultation to ensure the fishery is not jeopardizing the continued existence of humpback whales.

Legislative efforts to phase out the fishery include California Senate Bill 1017, which was signed into law on September 27, 2018, and directed the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to establish a voluntary transition program to incentivize drift gill net permittees to transition out of the drift gill net shark and swordfish fishery. Bipartisan federal legislation that would have gradually ended the use of drift gillnets off the West Coast was vetoed by President Trump at the end of 2020. Similar legislation has passed both the House and Senate this Congress and is now in conference.

This article was first published by The Center for Biological Diversity on 6 June 2022. Lead Image: Humpback whale. Credit: NOAA.

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