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How to Add a Mammal to the Endangered Species List

Proposal | Add Unique Marine Mammal to Endangered Species List

If you've wondered, like me, how animals (or plants) are added to the US Endangered Species List ... and what happens next, this case study helps you understand how it happens, why, and what it means to the species to be added. It's not just a "top 10" list... this Endangered Species List requires that restorative action be taken.

And you might also wonder why ONE species in an endangered habitat is listed... and not others. There's a concept called "keystone species" in which one specific species is more identifiable, more measurable, and usually the first to be affected by pollution, etc. It's like the "Canary in the Coal Mine" concept -- one species is more sensitive, and it can be an early warning system for additional species what are also being affected by harmful conditions.

Problem: Only 150 Hawaiian False Killer Whales Remain in the Wild

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

Courtesy Cascadia Research Collective/National Geographic Crittercam and

In a move to save the dwindling population of the Pseudorca crassidens—better known as the insular Hawaiian false killer whale—the Obama Administration today proposed classifying the population as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act.

“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 and, according to recent analysis by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), only 150 of the animals may be left. Last month the NMFS released a 230-page report concluding that the population stands “at a high risk of extinction.”

“Today’s announcement recognizes the serious situation the Hawaiian false killer whales face due to a series of manmade threats,” said Sylvia Fallon, wildlife biologist with NRDC. “Toxic chemicals, reduced food sources and interactions with fishing vessels continue to harm this unique mammal. Endangered species status will give the population a chance to recover.”

This decision comes one year after NRDC submitted a formal scientific petition to list the population. Should the administration follow through on its proposal, 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.

Background on the Hawaiian False Killer Whale

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 cumulative effects of these risks combined with the population’s dangerously small size qualify it for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act. NRDC petitioned to list the Hawaiian false killer whale as an endangered species in September 2009. Granting of endangered species status would extend a special level of protection to the whales and their habitat in order to help the population rebound.

Recent population surveys of the insular population of Hawaiian false killer whales shows a precipitous decline in size over the past 10-20 years. In 1989, more than 300 individuals were seen in aerial surveys compared to more recent population estimates of 150 individuals.

The National Marine Fisheries Service

The National Marine Fisheries Service will have one year from today’s proposed rule to issue a final rule designating the Hawaiian false killer whale as a federally protected endangered species.

Video of the Hawaiian false killer whales are available here:

Hawaiian false killer whales video 1

Hawaiian false killer whales video 2

NRDC’s petition is available here: NRDC’s petition