Kolohe recovered from a fishhook encounter and was returned to Kau‘ai
Image: courtesy of noaa

The National Marine Fisheries Service is urging fishermen to quickly report hookings of endangered Hawaiian monk seals. The outreach follows a spate of recent hookings–eight so far this year, compared to nine in all of 2011–and the deaths of three seals. Still, “we need to keep these incidents in perspective,” said Jeff Walters, NMFS marine mammal branch chief. “There are thousands of hooks and lines in the water every weekend, so the proportion [of incidents] is remarkably low. These interactions are serious, but they are not the major threat to [the population’s] recovery.”

The NMFS is working with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to build relationships with fishermen because seals have a better survival rate if they are treated quickly. The agencies are also working to minimize future harm: For example, DLNR staff are distributing barbless hooks at fishing tournaments. And fishermen have been extremely helpful in reporting other seals that appear to be ill or injured, Walters said. “We are trying to maintain good relationships and build new ones,” added Wende Goo, who handles regional communications for NMFS.

At the same time, NMFS is being accused of failing to protect another rare marine mammal, the Hawaiian false killer whale. On March 22, the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a federal lawsuit against NMFS, contending the agency has dragged its feet in deciding whether the animal (actually a species of large dolphin) should be added to the Endangered Species List–a status for which NRDC had petitioned in 2009. The false killer whale population is estimated at about 150 in Hawaii waters; in 2010 NMFS issued a report concluding that it stands “at a high risk of extinction,” and proposed listing it as endangered. “We cannot afford to waste another day leaving these endangered whales vulnerable,” Michael Jasny, senior policy analyst with NRDC’s marine mammal project, said in a press release.

The Endangered Species Act requires the government to make a final decision within a year. Goo said the agency had received notice of the lawsuit and was working with its staff “to determine the next step.”