San Francisco Chronicle

Judge: U.S. fails to protect whales

- By Bob Egelko Reach Bob Egelko: begelko@sfchronicl­; Twitter: @BobEgelko

U.S. wildlife officials are violating their legal duty by failing to protect endangered Pacific humpback whales from being killed in government-approved underwater fishing gear off the coast of California, Oregon and Washington, a federal judge in San Francisco ruled Tuesday.

The National Marine Fisheries Service was required to include a plan to protect the whales when it issued a three-year offshore permit in 2021 to the commercial sablefish industry, said U.S. District Judge James Donato in the ruling on a lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity.

Sablefish, a soft-fleshed, bottom-dwelling species, are caught by commercial vessels in tens of thousands of ocean-floor pots connected by long lines in which whales can become entangled.

The federal agency said it had not required the fisheries to present a “take-reduction plan,” or protective strategy, because it lacked the money to do so. The agency said such a plan was “on the priority list for developmen­t,” but that was not enough to satisfy its obligation under laws protecting imperiled species, Donato said.

The law gives the highest priority to protecting species “whose level of incidental mortality and serious injury exceeds the potential biological removal level, those that have a small population size, and those which are declining most rapidly,” the judge wrote. He said such measures are required for commercial fisheries whose activity causes serious injury or death to marine mammals, a descriptio­n that “fits to a tee the ESA (Endangered Species Act) listed humpback whales and pot fishery here.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service “could have lawfully issued the 2021 permit only if it determined that a take-reduction plan has been developed or is being developed for the humpback whales,” Donato said. He scheduled an April 20 conference to discuss next actions in the case.

“This is a clear win for endangered humpback whales, who face enough deadly threats in the water already,” said Kristen Monsell, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity in Oakland. “Fishing gear and lines in migrating humpbacks’ habitat mean more entangleme­nts, and the Fisheries Service shouldn’t have ignored those risks. These majestic animals deserve to live without lethal obstacles in their way. This victory will help them recover.”

Monsell said humpback whales were first listed as endangered in the 1970s, but there has been a 400 percent increase since 2018 in serious injuries and deaths to the species from human activity, including nets and vessel strikes. She said the whales are entangled in the underwater nets off the coast of the Bay Area and elsewhere in California and the Pacific Northwest.

 ?? Eric Risberg/Associated Press ?? A humpback whale breeches off Half Moon Bay.
Eric Risberg/Associated Press A humpback whale breeches off Half Moon Bay.

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