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Humpback whales may get more protection from fishing operations

Endangered humpback whales won a legal victory this week as advocates pressed for changes to commercial fishing practices in the Pacific Ocean.

The Center for Biological Diversity sued the National Marine Fisheries Service over its handling of whale deaths that happen as a result of fishing operations. The lawsuit argued there wasn’t a plan to protect some of the planet’s largest mammals.

“They often breach, so they’ll jump out of the water and you can see them splash,” said Kirsten Monsell, the senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “They sing songs in their breeding grounds. I mean, they are just amazing, amazing creatures.”


But the whales frequently encounter long rope lines that connect fishing pots on the ocean floor with buoys on the surface.

When whales swim into those lines, they can easily become tangled. The ropes can cause serious injuries, so severe that the whale sometimes dies.

“Not only is it a horribly painful, traumatic and often deadly experience for these individual animals but it is preventing their (species’) recovery,” Monsell said.

Whales can be rescued, but the process is difficult and only happens if humans spot the entangled mammal.

The Center for Biological Diversity sued because the nation’s fisheries managers permitted fishing interests to use the equipment that is a threat to humpback whales. The lawsuit also stated fisheries managers acknowledged they did not have a plan to reduce the risk of entanglements and federal officials did not consider developing a plan an urgent matter.


The court agreed that the federal agency was not working in the interests of an endangered species.

Federal officials declined to comment on the ruling saying they don’t discuss litigation.

The Center for Biological Diversity wants the fishing industry to adopt alternatives to their current fishing practices that are safer for whales. That can include gear that sits on the bottom of the ocean to catch fish, and then uses air-filled bladders to hoist the catch to the surface, where crews can collect it.

That would eliminate the need for a long rope.

Monsell said fishing fleets could also avoid using the long ropes during the summer when there are more humpback whales in California waters.

There are two distinct populations of humpback whales that visit the California ocean, a Central American population that’s endangered and a Mexico population that’s threatened.

Center for Biological Diversity v. National Marine Fisheries Service
Read the lawsuit here
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