Three years ago, NRDC petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to add Hawaii’s coastal false killer whales to the endangered species list. Today, after a thorough review (and after litigation over missed deadlines), the Fisheries Service did just that. It’s a hugely important moment for the whales – and for Hawaii.
For marine mammals, the Hawaiian Islands represent a kind of oasis. Many people know about the long southern migration that humpback whales make there each year, traveling all the way from the Gulf of Alaska and the Aleutians. But the humpbacks are not alone. Every species of whale and dolphin that biologists have examined around Hawaii has established a kind of residency around the main islands – even species like the false killer whale that, by nature, are pelagic, open-ocean animals. They’re attracted to the nutrients in an otherwise unproductive part of the Central Pacific.
Unfortunately, their fidelity to Hawaii has left them terribly vulnerable. False killer whales have a small, limited range around the main islands and over time have become genetically isolated from their pelagic cousins – which means they’re more susceptible to environmental stress, and slower to recover. Their numbers have fallen dramatically over the past three decades, and they face a myriad of human threats (overfishing, toxics, ocean noise) that their close association with the islands makes hard for them to avoid.
Without intervention, says the Fisheries Service, the population is likely to become functionally extinct within 75 years. That is almost within the lifetime of an individual animal.
Today’s listing means the agency will develop a recovery plan and take steps to protect both the whales and their habitat. It represents our best chance to save them, and saving them could go a long way towards preserving the remarkable marine oasis of which they are a part.