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Environmentalists sue to protect Pacific humpback whales from fishing entanglements

Ed Lyman/NOAA permit # 774-1714
Humpback Whale and calf

The Pacific humpback whale is at the center of a lawsuit filed last week against the National Marine Fisheries Service. It claims that they failed to protect the endangered species from entanglements in fishing gear.

The lawsuit is being filed by the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. It claims that the agency did not use the most up-to-date science when issuing permits, which in turn, wrongfully allows up to five whales a year to be entangled on the West Coast. The Service is not taking into account how few whales there really are, according to the environmental group.

“The Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act both prohibit killing endangered whales,” says Catherine Kilduff, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “But commercial fisheries can get a permit if there is a negligible impact to the population. And that’s what we're challenging, is the decision that there is a negligible impact to humpback whales.”

But, according to Glen Spain with the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, the lawsuit is unnecessary because fisheries are already implementing fishing gear retrieval programs and gear marking programs to prevent whale entanglements.

“The impacts from the fishing industry are diminishing year by year,” he says. “As we deploy these new methods, we expect that they will be heading towards zero.”

Spain says that the lawsuit is overly focused on past events.

The Center for Biological Diversity says that climate change has led the Pacific humpback whale to migrate closer and closer to the shore. This has led to run-ins with fishing lines from various fisheries, although the lawsuit is focused on sablefish fisheries in Washington, Oregon and California.

One solution proposed by the Center for Biological Diversity is the use of pop-up gear, a ropeless way to fish. But, Spain says that this equipment is prohibitively expensive and often has technical problems.

The National Marine Fisheries Service declined to comment because of ongoing litigation.

Sophia Prince is a reporter and producer for JPR News. She began as JPR’s 2021 summer intern through the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism. She graduated from the University of Oregon with a BA in journalism and international studies.