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False Killer Whales of the Hawaiian Islands Could Be Listed As Endangered Species


Should the "false killer whale" population that calls the waters around Hawaii home be listed as an endangered species? NPS photo.

An unusual population of whales -- the false killer whales that live in the waters around the Hawaiian islands -- could gain Endangered Species Protection due to its dwindling population.

The species -- Pseudorca crassidens, aka the insular Hawaiian false killer whale -- has suffered from declining food sources, pollution, and even fishing lines, according to Natural Resources Defense Council officials.

“The whales are losing their food, getting hooked on fishing lines, and accumulating toxins at a rate that threatens their survival,” said Michael Jasny, senior policy analyst of NRDC’s Marine Mammal Project. “Protecting them will go a long way towards protecting the extraordinary marine environment of the Hawaiian Islands.”

The Hawaiian false killer whale is a small and ecologically unique population that has suffered a significant decline over the last 25 years. According to recent analysis by the National Marine Fisheries Service, only 150 of the animals may be left, down from more than 300 individuals counted in 1989. Last month the service released a 230-page report concluding that the population stands “at a high risk of extinction.”

According to Park Service personnel in Hawaii:

Pseudorca, or false killer whales, are a large-toothed whale that lives in the tropical and sub-tropical open ocean. In Hawaiian waters there is a small population associated with the main Hawaiian Islands that are long-term residents, they are kama‘aina, truely Hawaiian, Pseudorca. More is known about Pseudorca in Hawaiian waters than anywhere else in the world, and they are one of the highest priority species for the Cascadia Research Collective’s Hawai‘i research program. Cascadia Research is a non-profit, tax-exempt scientific and education organization based in Olympia, Washington. They were founded in 1979 primarily to conduct research needed to manage and protect threatened marine mammals.

Pseudorca are uncommon everywhere – they are at the top of the food web, and like other top predators are naturally rare. A study of all of Hawaiian waters out to the international boundary found that false killer whales were the least abundant of the 18 species of toothed whales and dolphins found in Hawaiian waters.

According to NRDC officials, if the Obama administration follows through on its proposal to list the species as "endangered," the Hawaiian false killer whale would become only the fourth U.S. whale or dolphin population to appear on the endangered species list since 1970.

Under the endangered species listing, the government would have to identify critical habitat for the population, ensure that activities do not jeopardize its survival, and prepare a “recovery plan” to bring it back from the brink. NOAA’s Fisheries Service is accepting comments on the proposed listing through Feb. 15, 2011.

Here's a short video via a "whalecam" that shows some of the whales:

False Killer Whale Crittercam - 2 from NRDC Broadcast Videos on Vimeo.

And here's some background on the whales from the NRDC:

Hawaiian false killer whales are large members of the dolphin family. Females can grow up to 15 feet and males can reach 20 feet. In adulthood, false killer whales can weigh up to 1,500 pounds. They are pelagic animals that tend to prefer deep, open water, and the Hawaiian inshore population is the only one of its entire species known to make its home near land. This indicates not only the uniqueness of the population, but also the biological importance of Hawaiian waters as an oasis for marine mammals.

Research shows that Hawaiian false killer whales establish long-term bonds within their species, sometimes mating for up to 20 years. They also display unique feeding habits that promote trust among members of their pod by passing prey back and forth with fellow hunting partners before consuming the catch.

The population faces a number of threats including interactions with local fisheries, reduced food sources and exposure to toxic chemicals. It is likely that the whales are affected by both long-line and unregulated near-shore and “short” long-line fisheries. A recent study showed that disfigurement from fishing gear in this population was four times higher than for other dolphin and toothed whale species around the islands, suggesting high rates of interactions with fisheries. These fisheries may also be contributing to a decline in the size and number of the primary food source for false killer whales: large, deep-water fish including mahi mahi and yellowfin tuna.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has until November 17, 2011, to issue a final rule designating the Hawaiian false killer whale as a federally protected endangered species.

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