HONOLULU (AP) - The National Marine Fisheries Service has agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by environmentalists and says it will issue new rules aimed at preventing Hawaii fishermen from accidentally hooking a rare dolphin species when they're fishing for tuna and swordfish.
The settlement with the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network requires it to issue new regulations by Nov. 30.
The agency published a draft of rules last year to protect the dolphins called false killer whales but never followed with a final version that would have put the regulations in place. The environmental groups, represented by Earthjustice, sued in June to force the agency to follow up.
The dolphins have been getting caught in the long-line fishery at high rates, in part because they eat many of the same fish the fishermen are catching. The hooks accidentally snag false killer whales when the dolphins try to eat the fish caught on the lines.
Members of one false killer whale group living in waters up to 60 miles from Hawaii have been killed and seriously injured at three times the sustainable level for the population, the lawsuit said. Another group - in waters farther off the coast - is being killed and injured at four times the sustainable rate.
David Henkin, an Earthjustice attorney, said the accidental hookings have continued in months since the agency was supposed to have issued new regulations. The tuna and swordfish fishery snagged at least two, and as many as four, of the dolphins in the first six months of 2012, he said.
The National Marine Fisheries Service didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the settlement agreement. Almost all of the new rules proposed by the agency in July 2011 were developed by a task force of scientists, fishermen, conservationists and civil servants.
The team suggested that the fishery be required to use circle hooks instead of the Japanese-style tuna hooks - shaped somewhat like the letter "j." The theory is that false killer whales would be less likely to get caught on the circle hooks, which are weaker, and those caught would have an easier time wiggling free.