Stellar sea lions, © David B. Ledig/USFWS

Pushing for Safer Seafood

National Marine Fisheries Service proposes new regulations to protect marine mammals around the world

Each year, around 650,000 marine mammals like sea lions, whales and dolphins die after becoming trapped, entangled or hooked in fishing gear used for harvesting shrimp, tuna, and other commercial seafoods. This accidental capture, known as bycatch, is the biggest threat to marine mammal populations worldwide. In the United States, the Marine Mammal Protection Act requires U.S. fisheries to use technologies and time- or place-based fishing restrictions to reduce and avoid marine mammal bycatch. But since much of our seafood is imported from outside the U.S., these protections can only go so far.

Spinner dolphin, © NOAA

Recently, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposed a new regulation to help address this gap in protection. Under the new rule, countries that wish to export fish and fish products to the United States would be required to operate under standards equivalent to those in the U.S. to avoid marine mammal bycatch. If finalized, this rule will make fisheries around the world less dangerous to marine mammals, and in some instances, even require protections where they have never existed before. It would also require countries to begin gathering data on bycatch – something that conservationists have been seeking for years. The more comprehensive data that becomes available, the better understanding of population estimates scientists can derive.

Today, some marine mammal species have been pushed to the brink because bycatch has so decimated their populations. The vaquita porpoise in the Gulf of California has been driven almost to extinction by bycatch. Experts believe there may be fewer than 50 individuals left in the wild. Vaquitas live in shallow waters that are densely occupied by coastal gillnets, a type of fishing net that sits on the ocean floor. If U.S. bycatch standards or their equivalents had been implemented for fisheries operating in the Gulf of California in the 1970s, the vaquita would likely be in much better shape.

Right whales, © Sea to Shore Alliance/NOAA, NOAA permit #15488

This new rule could give us a chance to protect other species from ever declining as far as the vaquita has. It would also help the North Atlantic right whale, one of the most endangered whales in the world. These whales are slow to reproduce, and their population may number no more than 500 remaining individuals. Any level of bycatch is a huge threat to the North Atlantic right whale.

The new regulation won’t only help marine mammals close to home – it would also help protect the harbor porpoise in the Baltic and Black Seas, spinner dolphins in the Indian Ocean, and even sea lions in New Zealand. With this proposed regulation, NMFS has called upon the world to collectively improve conservation standards in fisheries.

This concept is far from new. In fact, it was part of the original language in the Marine Mammal Protection Act back in 1972. That’s right – the legal basis for this new rule has been in existence for over 40 years! But without a way to carry out that part of the law, hundreds of millions of tons of seafood have been imported to the United States, costing millions of marine mammals their lives. With this new regulation, NMFS is finally addressing this issue – and the agency needs our support. If you care about whales, dolphins, sea lions and other marine mammals, speak up and tell NMFS you support its proposed regulations, and urge the agency to finalize this regulation as soon as possible.

Importing and exporting seafood is a lucrative form of wildlife trade. But even legal trade in wildlife can harm imperiled species unless it is tightly regulated. The United States is a huge importer of seafood, and at long last NMFS is using that economic power to make fisheries around the world less dangerous to marine mammals – a vision that Congress intended to make reality over 40 years ago. If finalized, this regulation will be a huge step towards global conservation of marine mammals.

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4 Responses to “Pushing for Safer Seafood”

  1. Richard Spotts

    Rosa, many thanks for your excellent article and diligent work on behalf of wildlife conservation. I hope that NMFS adopts a strong final rule soon and then works to fully and effectively implement it. Despite the forty-year hiatus from MMPA enactment, this long overdue regulatory action is better late than never, especially if it can help prevent extinction of the vaquita in the Gulf of California. Defenders has indeed been pushing for more effective vaquita conservation since the late 1970s. I know because I worked for Defenders on vaquita issues back then when I was the California/Nevada representative in Sacramento.

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