U.S. commercial fisheries are some of the most carefully managed in the world. Even so, certain fishing activities can cause serious injuries or deaths to whales and other marine mammals. If the harm is significant enough to threaten species viability, U.S. law requires that a diverse set of players—fishermen, conservationists, researchers, and state and federal fishery managers—come together to devise new rules to protect the threatened species.
False killer whales are one such example. In the waters off Hawaii, the locally-based longline fleet fishes year-round for much-prized swordfish and tuna. Unfortunately, these fish are also much prized among false killer whales. On occasion, the whales get hooked when feeding on the tuna and swordfish that a fishing vessel has already caught. Because the population is so small, the deaths (often referred to as “takes”) of even a few false killer whales over a handful of years can greatly jeopardize the population’s sustainability. CBI and CONCUR, Inc., designed and facilitated a fast-track series of negotiations. Over six months, CBI and CONCUR, Inc. helped hammer out new rules intended to reduce takes of false killer whale while allowing the longline fleet to remain active and financially viable.
Initially, the parties focused on fully understanding the nature of the problem. Among other things, this involved studying false killer whale biology to determine exactly how the false killer whales get hooked on the longline gear. (For example, getting a better handle on how the animals echolocate on both the vessel and prey.) This joint fact-finding, supported by scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service, proved essential in building a common understanding of the risks. Next, the negotiators (referred to as a Take Reduction Team) brainstormed solutions to lower the likelihood of takes, from modifying gear and bait to changing when and where the fleet could fish. The team’s work ranged from late night talks around maps detailing areas of fishing activities and past takes to testing the breaking strengths of hooks and line to determine what it would take for a false killer whale to straighten a hook and slip away uninjured. A key to the negotiations was to consider the potential impact of any change not only on the false killer whales, but also on the fishery and fishermen. Outreach was a significant challenge, as the fleet is split among English, Korean, and Vietnamese-speaking captains. Negotiators identified liaisons within each community to ensure awareness and participation.
The negotiations—a total of four multi-day sessions over six months—resulted in full consensus on a set of recommended management changes and research activities. One particularly creative solution, crafted to account for both technical uncertainties (conservationists lacked confidence in the effectiveness of a shift to weaker hooks) and economic concerns (fishermen didn’t want to prematurely shut down prized fishing grounds), was a trigger that requires targeted closure areas only when takes exceed an allowable amount. Fisheries within the jurisdiction of National Marine Fisheries Services largely adopted the recommended actions.