Environmentalists on Thursday sued the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for failing to protect endangered humpback whales from entanglement in drift nets used in commercial fishing in California.
Drift nets are long fishing nets that drift with the current, creating a curtain of nylon mesh to catch fish. The nets hang from surface floats around 60 meters (200 feet) into the sea and are used along the West Coast in the United States to catch fish like thresher sharks, swordfish and Pacific bluefin tuna.
The drift nets can severely harm and even kill sea turtles, dolphins, whales and other marine mammals when they get stuck in them.
The Center for Biological Diversity, the group that filed the lawsuit, said the NMFS is violating the Endangered Species Act by allowing drift nets without safeguards to be used in commercial fishing and failing to consider the nets’ harm to whales, some who are already at risk of extinction.
The lawsuit said an estimated twelve Pacific humpback whales were entangled in drift nets during the last two fishing seasons off the coast of California, where the whales spend time in spring and summer to eat.
Two populations of humpback whales are at risk to get caught in fishing nets: a group of about 1,500 whales listed as endangered that live off the coast of Central America in winter, and some 2,900 others listed as endangered who spend winters near Mexico.
“This struggling humpback whale population faces numerous threats, and these absurdly huge nets are one more hazard they can’t avoid,” attorney Catherine Kilduff said. Since 2014, whale entanglements from fishing nets and other fishing gear have surged, especially for humpback whales.
The lawsuit seeks a court order for the limited use of drift nets and a complete ban of drift nets in “areas of highest risk” for humpback whale entanglements.