False killer whales: The next endangered species?

LIHU‘E — Although rarely seen, a resident population of false killer whales exists around the main Hawaiian Islands, says the Friends of Hanapepe Public Library.

These predators travel in groups among the Islands, feeding on large game fish like mahimahi and swordfish, sharing their prey — sometimes even with humans. Researchers recently spotted an unusual sighting of killer whales off Kaua‘i, reported the Associated Press on July 26.

There is evidence the Hawai‘i resident population has declined dramatically over the past few decades as the false killer whales face threats, which include high levels of pollutants, bycatch in fisheries and a reduction of their prey base.

False killer whales can grow as long as 16 feet and weigh more than a ton, according to the AP story. They are usually black or dark gray and don’t look like killer whales, despite their name. It is rare to have killer whales in Hawai‘i and the orcas spotted appeared to have been chasing a rough-toothed dolphin.

The species is found in tropical and temperate waters around the world, but the two populations near Hawai‘i are small, scientists estimating about 120 live in waters up to 60 miles off Hawai‘i’s coasts and a few hundred more living in waters farther offshore.

To protect the false killer whale, a rare dolphin species, new rules proposed by the National Marine Fisheries Service would require Hawai‘i’s longline fishing fleet to use a certain type of hook, circle hooks instead of the Japanese-style tuna hooks, while fishing for ahi, mahimahi and ono, reports a July 23 AP story.

The agency recently published the proposed rules in the Federal Register and is accepting public comment on the ideas through mid-October with a final decision expected in November, a Friends of Hanapepe Library news release announced.

Robert Baird, a research biologist with the Cascadia Research Collective , a non-profit research and education organization based in Olympia, Wash., has been working in Hawai‘i since 1999 studying false killer whales and other species of whales and dolphins.

Baird will be the featured speaker and presenter during the Hawaiian Marine Environment monthly lecture series on Aug. 4 at the Hanapepe Public Library from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

The presentation is free and open to the public said Karen Ikemoto, the head librarian at the Hanapepe Public Library.

Baird will be speaking on “False Killer Whales — Hawai‘i’s Next Endangered Species?”

Baird’s presentation will summarize studies of false killer whales in Hawai‘i, including information on their behavior and ecology, the threats they face and what is being learned by using satellite tags to study their movements and assess critical habitat.

His presentation coincides with his visit on Kaua‘i for a field project studying false killer whales and other species, including the orcas sighted recently.

Visit www.cascadiaresearch.org/hawaii/falsekillerwhale.htm for more information on the false killer what. Visit www.cascadiaresearch.org/hawaii/july2011.htm for more information on the current field research.

The monthly lecture series on the marine environment is sponsored by the Friends of Hanapepe Public Library. Call 335-8418 for more information.

• Dennis Fujimoto, photographer and staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 253) or dfujimoto@ thegardenisland.com.

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