Longline Fisheries Killing False Killer Whales at Unsustainable Rates
On Aug. 7, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued new data confirming that the Hawaiʻi-based longline fisheries are killing false killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens, a large dolphin species) at unsustainable rates.
The new information highlights the need for NMFS to promptly finalize and implement a plan to protect false killer whales in Hawaiian waters, as required by the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act. In June 2012, Earthjustice, representing the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network, sued NMFS in federal court over the agency’s failure to finalize the plan, which was due in December 2011.
“For years, the fishing industry has been saying that new surveys would show there are plenty of false killer whales and that we shouldn’t be concerned about the animals that are hooked and drowned each year in longline gear,” said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Well, the survey data are now in, and they back up what we’ve been saying all along. If we want to save Hawaiʻi’s false killer whales, we need to take prompt action to stop these animals dying in the longline fisheries.”
NMFS’s new survey data provide more accurate estimates of false killer whales in Hawaiian waters than previously available. The data revise upwards the minimum population estimate for false killer whales found more than 40 kilometers (22 nautical miles) from the main Hawaiian Islands (the “Hawaiʻi Pelagic Stock”), from a prior estimate of 249 animals to a new estimate of 906 animals.
Based on the new estimate, NMFS concluded that the Pelagic Stock could sustain nine deaths each year from interactions with commercial fisheries. The agency’s latest observer data show that the Hawaiʻi-based longline fisheries are killing an average of over 13 false killer whales each year, which is a dramatic increase from last year’s figure of nearly 11 whales per year and nearly half again what NMFS has said the population can sustain.
“The evidence is in, and the number of these beautiful animals dying from the longline fishery keeps going up. At this rate, we will lose Hawaiian false killer whales—another victim of unsustainable industrial longline fishing,” said Todd Steiner, biologist and executive director of the Turtle Island Restoration Network. “There is no excuse for inaction by NMFS. I imagine that President Obama wants his kids to see these magnificent toothed whales when they vacation in Hawaiʻi as adults, but that can happen only if the federal government takes immediate action to protect these animals from destructive fishing practices.”
NMFS’s latest report for the population of false killer whales found within 140 kilometers (76 nautical miles) of the main Hawaiian Islands (the “Hawaiʻi Insular Stock”) slightly increased the minimum population estimate, from 110 animals to 129 animals. The new estimate does not change NMFS’s conclusion that the Insular Stock—which NMFS has proposed to list as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act—has declined by 9 percent per year since 1989. Observer data show that the longline fisheries are killing false killer whales from the Insular Stock at nearly double the rate the population can sustain.
“If we are to have any hope of saving Hawaiʻi’s false killer whales, it is time for NMFS to stop making excuses and to start complying with its legal obligation to protect these unique animals by promptly issuing and implementing a plan to reduce false killer whale deaths in the longline fisheries,” said Earthjustice Attorney David Henkin.
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By Aaron W Hunter
A chance discovery of a beautifully preserved fossil in the desert landscape of Morocco has solved one of the great mysteries of biology and paleontology: how starfish evolved their arms.
The Pompeii of palaeontology. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<h2></h2><p>Although starfish might appear very robust animals, they are typically made up of lots of hard parts attached by ligaments and soft tissue which, upon death, quickly degrade. This means we rely on places like the Fezouata formations to provide snapshots of their evolution.</p><p>The starfish fossil record is patchy, especially at the critical time when many of these animal groups first appeared. Sorting out how each of the various types of ancient starfish relate to each other is like putting a puzzle together when many of the parts are missing.</p><h2>The Oldest Starfish</h2><p><em><a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/216101v1.full.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Cantabrigiaster</a></em> is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. It was discovered in 2003, but it has taken over 17 years to work out its true significance.</p><p>What makes <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> unique is that it lacks almost all the characteristics we find in brittle stars and starfish.</p><p>Starfish and brittle stars belong to the family Asterozoa. Their ancestors, the Somasteroids were especially fragile - before <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> we only had a handful of specimens. The celebrated Moroccan paleontologist Mohamed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2016.06.041" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ben Moula</a> and his local team was instrumental in discovering <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031018216302334?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these amazing fossils</a> near the town of Zagora, in Morocco.</p><h2>The Breakthrough</h2><p>Our breakthrough moment came when I compared the arms of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> with those of modern sea lilles, filter feeders with long feathery arms that tend to be attached to the sea floor by a stem or stalk.</p><p>The striking similarity between these modern filter feeders and the ancient starfish led our team from the University of Cambridge and Harvard University to create a new analysis. We applied a biological model to the features of all the current early Asterozoa fossils in existence, along with a sample of their closest relatives.</p>
Cantabrigiaster is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<p>Our results demonstrate <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> is the most primitive of all the Asterozoa, and most likely evolved from ancient animals called crinoids that lived 250 million years before dinosaurs. The five arms of starfish are a relic left over from these ancestors. In the case of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em>, and its starfish descendants, it evolved by flipping upside-down so its arms are face down on the sediment to feed.</p><p>Although we sampled a relatively small numbers of those ancestors, one of the unexpected outcomes was it provided an idea of how they could be related to each other. Paleontologists studying echinoderms are often lost in detail as all the different groups are so radically different from each other, so it is hard to tell which evolved first.</p>
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