NOAA Fisheries sued over sablefish pot gear permit

A Pacific humpback whale swimming.

The Center for Biological Diversity filed a federal lawsuit on Monday, 10 January, saying a permit NOAA Fisheries authorized for sablefish further endangers Pacific humpback whales.

In December 2021, NOAA Fisheries approved the use of pot gear for harvesting sablefish. The pots sit on the ocean floor in a two-mile long string with vertical lines tied to each end of the string, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for California's Northern District.

The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental nonprofit group, claims endangered humpback whales can get trapped in the gear. When that happens, they can drown or die from starvation or infection. The group claims that nearly 50 humpbacks die or receive serious injuries each year as a result of human activity in the United States, a 400 percent increase from 2018. About half of those deaths or injuries come from fishing encounters, according to the organization.

The pot gear is used in a more than 48,00- square-nautical-mile area that’s located in a 116,000-square-nautical-mile section of the Pacific Ocean identified as a critical habitat area by the Biden administration in April 2021.

Center for Biological Diversity attorney Elizabeth Kilduff said it was “outrageous” that NOAA Fisheries went ahead with the permit approval.

“These migrating whales shouldn’t have to dodge deadly commercial fishing gear, especially in national marine sanctuaries,” Kilduff said. “This is critical habitat for endangered humpbacks, but it’s full of long strings of fishing pots.”

The organization has urged NOAA Fisheries to make pot gear fisheries use ropeless pot gear that would reduce the risk to whales and other marine species.

The lawsuit seeks a ruling that NOAA Fisheries violated the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act with its permit approval and asks for NOAA's December ruling to be set aside.

The Center for Biological Diversity has launched multiple lawsuits against NOAA and other federal organizations in the past. The group has sued over turtle excluder use, threatened a federal lawsuit to seek protections for sea cucumbers, and was successful in a lawsuit that found the U.S. lobster fishery violates the Endangered Species Act.  

Photo courtesy of Earth theater/Shutterstock


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