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Lawsuit filed over humpback whale endangerment; blame placed on fishery gear

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Ed Lyman/NOAA Permit # 774-1714
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Humpback whales

Pacific humpback whales are the subject of a lawsuit filed Monday, claiming the endangered species is not being protected from entanglements caused by fishing gear off the West Coast.

Endangered Pacific humpback whales migrate all along the California coast and feed for much of the year in the Monterey Bay and Big Sur areas.

Much of the whales’ migration area also facilitates sablefish catch. That kind of fishing is traditionally done using pot gear with long lines that are left unattended for days at a time.

The Center for Biological Diversity is now suing the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), claiming the agency is failing to protect humpback whales from being entangled in this pot gear.

“We brought the lawsuit because even though the agency listed them as endangered, they haven’t reduced fishing gear entanglements, which is one of the main reasons that these whales are dying,” said Center for Biological Diversity senior attorney Catherine Kilduff.

Kilduff said the Center is proposing that the NMFS require all fisheries that use pot gear to transition to pop-up gear within the next five years. Pop-up gear uses lift bags or buoys and essentially eliminates static entangling lines.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has considered requiring pop-up gear throughout the fishing season, but decided against it due to concerns about enforceability and cost.

Mike Conroy is the executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Association. He said requiring pop-up gear is problematic for a number of reasons.

“This gear type isn’t functional yet," Conroy said. "Our members have tested it and have concerns about it.”

The CDFW estimates that a single timed-release trap can range anywhere in cost from $225 to $11,000. Conroy said transitioning to pop-up gear just isn’t feasible for most fisheries.

“$1,700 bucks with a 500 trap permit. That’s what, $850,000 bucks to spend on gear. Ropeless gear just isn’t ready yet,” Conroy said.

According to the CDFW, there were four documented cases of humpback whales becoming entangled in sablefish pot gear along the West Coast between 2014 and 2020.

But Kilduff said the pot gear likely causes more humpback whale deaths than are officially reported.

“There really aren’t reports unless there’s someone like a recreational fisherman or a whale watcher that happens to see the whale. They retrieve the fishing gear that’s on the whale and then identify it to the fishery,” Kilduff said.

In a statement to KCBX News, Karen Edson with the NMFS West Coast Region said they could not comment on pending litigation.

Rachel Showalter first joined KCBX as an intern from Cal Poly in 2017. During her time in college, she anchored and reported for Mustang News at Cal Poly's radio station, KCPR. After graduating, she took her first job as a Producer at KSBY-TV. She returned to the KCBX team in October 2020 and now reports daily for KCBX News. Rachel spends her off-days climbing rocks, cooking artichokes and fighting crosswords with friends.
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