HONOLULU - The National Marine Fisheries Service said Wednesday that it would take two steps to protect a rare dolphin in waters near Hawaii.
One is to list a small population group of the dolphin, known as the false killer whale, as endangered. The other is to issue rules for Hawaii's long-line fishermen aimed at reducing the number of the animals that accidentally get caught on fishing lines.
The actions are being prompted by two separate court orders in response to lawsuits filed by multiple environmental groups.
The fisheries service is listing false killer whales found in and around the waters of Hawaii's eight main islands as endangered. There are just 150 of these dolphins remaining.
Another Hawaii population of the dolphins - numbering a few hundred - isn't being listed. This group lives in waters farther out from the islands.
False killer whales are found in tropical and temperate waters worldwide, but the two populations found near Hawaii are small.
Long-line fishing vessels string a line in the ocean, ranging from one mile to 50 miles long, to catch fish. They run smaller lines with baited hooks off the central line and wait for bait to attract fish.
Hawaii's long-line fishermen have been accidentally catching the dolphins at high rates, in part because the animals like to eat ahi tuna, mahimahi and many other fish the fishermen are catching.
The new rules for the long-line fishery are similar to those suggested by a team of scientists, fishermen, conservationists and government officials and formally proposed by the agency last year.
They require the fishery to use circle hooks instead of Japanese-style tuna hooks that are 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. Those caught should have an easier time wiggling free.
The agency eliminated a maximum size limit for the hooks, as fishermen pointed out that larger circle hooks haven't been shown to harm the dolphins but they prevent sea turtles from becoming snagged. The agency also slightly enlarged the size of the wire the fishermen may use in the circle hooks so they're strong enough to hold on to tuna but weak enough to allow the dolphins to get free.
Sean Martin, president of the Hawaii Longline Association, said the industry expected the rules because it helped develop them.
"We're certainly wanting to reduce our impacts on false killer whales, and hopefully the new regulations will be considered by other countries as well," he said. It would be disappointing if the U.S. were the only nation taking steps to protect the animals, he said.
The rules will hinder the fleet in that some prime fishing ground close to Hawaii will become off-limits to long-line boats, he said.
"We'll have to travel a little farther and be a little farther from home," he said.
The agency expects both measures to be made official and published in the Federal Register next week. The endangered listing will take effect one month later. Some rules to cut back on dolphin bycatch will kick in one month later, while others will take effect in three months.