U.S. takes huge step to boost global marine mammal protection

Proposes fishery rule could prevent tens of thousands of unnecessary whale and dolphin deaths

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Porpoises and other marine mammals could benefit from a new rule that would require other countries to meet protective U.S. marine mammal standards. @bberwyn photo.

Staff Report

FRISCO — The National Marine Fisheries Service wants to boost global efforts to protect marine mammals with a new set of proposed rules that would require commercial fishing operations in other countries to meet U.S. standards.

As proposed, seafood imports from other countries could be banned if they don’t meet those requirements. Scientists estimate that each year more than 650,000 whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals are caught and killed in fishing gear. These animals are unintentional “bycatch” of commercial fisheries and either drown or are tossed overboard to die from their injuries.NOAA is accepting public comment on the proposed rule until November 9, 2015. More information on the submission process can be found in the Federal Register notice.

The rule, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), aims to level the playing field for American fishermen who comply with U.S. marine mammal conservation standards, and is intended to help foreign fisheries support a healthy and diverse marine ecosystem.

“This rule proposes a system that would lead many foreign nations to improve their fishing practices to protect marine mammals,” said Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for NOAA Fisheries. “Those changes to current practice across the world will mark one of the most significant steps in the global conservation of marine mammals in decades, and could save substantial numbers of these vulnerable animals from injury and death,” Sobeck said.

To comply, nations could adopt a marine mammal conservation program consistent with the United States’ program, or develop an alternative regulatory program with results comparable in effectiveness to U.S. regulatory programs for reducing marine mammal bycatch. NOAA would then evaluate each nation’s program to determine whether a nation has taken sufficient action and may export seafood to the United States.

The proposed rule provides a 5-year grace period during which foreign nations will be able to gather information about the impacts of their fisheries on marine mammals and work to ensure that these impacts do not exceed U.S. standards. NOAA will consult with the harvesting nation and, to the extent possible, work with nations to build their capacity to meet the rule’s standards.

Conservation advocates said the proposal is a big step forward.

“The new regulations will force countries to meet U.S. conservation standards if they want access to this market, saving thousands of whales and dolphins from dying on hooks and in fishing nets around the world,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The U.S. government has finally recognized that all seafood consumed in the United States must be ‘dolphin-safe.’ ”

Uhleman pointed out that  U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act has long prohibited the United States from allowing seafood to enter the country unless it meets U.S. whale and dolphin standards. But for the past 40 years, the federal government has largely ignored the ban.

In 2014 the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Turtle Island Restoration Network filed suit in the Court of International Trade to enforce the import requirement, and today’s regulations were proposed pursuant to the resulting settlement.

“The public demands and the U.S. can — and by law, must — wield its tremendous purchasing power to save dolphins and whales from foreign fishing nets,” said Todd Steiner, biologist and executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network. “We have the right to ensure that the seafood sold in the U.S. is caught in ways that minimize the death and injury of marine mammals.”

Americans consume 5 billion pounds of seafood per year, including tuna, swordfish, shrimp and cod. About 90 percent of that seafood is imported, and about half is wild-caught.

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