Pity the poor false killer whale.

Fishermen in Hawaii who set longlines studded with thousands of hooks over dozens of miles often snag the whales — actually large dolphins — instead of their desired tuna or swordfish. Even the federal government, in the form of the National Marine Fisheries Service, acknowledges that the false killer whale is seriously threatened by longline fishing. NMFS has named the whale a top priority for protection under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

In 2004, NMFS determined the fishery was killing false killer whales at a level that mandated action under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, yet the agency has yet to attempt to solve the problem. The Hawaiian longline fishery continues killing false killer whales, unabatedly.

And this isn’t an isolated scenario. In a scathing new report [PDF], the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that NMFS has failed to follow through on the directives of the Marine Mammal Protection Act on numerous levels, primarily thanks to a lack of funding and inadequate data.

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The GAO found 30 marine mammal stocks that met the requirements for protection under the MMPA, starting with a team of scientists, fishermen, and others to develop a plan. As of 2009, the fisheries agency has established teams for only 16 of these 30 stocks. The 14 remaining stocks include a variety of charismatic megafauna, from bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico, to sperm whales in Hawaii and Steller sea lions in the North Pacific — all left vulnerable to commercial fishing.

It gets worse. NMFS lacks a human-caused mortality estimate or a maximum allowable removal level on 1 in 3 of the 113 marine mammal stocks that the agency has identified as “critical,” or facing serious threats from commercial fishing

So what’s the problem here? why can’t NMFS gather basic data on the animals it’s required by law to protect?

It boils down to this — a lack of funding for stock assessments and fisheries observers. Just 27 percent of fisheries that most affect marine mammals have adequate or near-adequate observer coverage, meaning on-board scientists to record the deaths of marine mammals. Without observers, NMFS must rely on anecdotal evidence or outdated data — sometimes eight or more years old — to determine the effects of commercial fishing on marine mammals. Because of this paucity of data, NMFS can’t calculate fishery-related mortality for more than half of the animals it is ordered to protect.

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And, perhaps more critically, it means NMFS doesn’t really know whether marine mammal populations are thriving or not.

The GAO rightfully observes that the challenge here is “very large, complex, and difficult.” An infusion of much-needed cash from the new administration could help get NMFS on its feet.

In the meantime, here’s a call to all would-be secretaries of the Commerce Department, which oversees our national fisheries: Come on over; you’ll have an opportunity to champion some of the world’s most beloved underwater creatures.

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