Federal Refusal to Enforce Law Allows Foreign Fishing Companies to Use Harmful Methods

Tuesday, January 14, 2014
Bycaught loggerhead turtle, 1969 (photo: Bob Williams-NOAA)

Despite a 40-year-old federal law meant to protect them, every year more than 650,000 marine mammals, including dolphins, whales and sea lions, are killed in foreign fisheries after being hooked, entangled or trapped in commercial fishing nets and other gear, according to a new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). When marine mammals are caught in fishing gear, it is called “bycatch,” i.e., they are caught as bystanders to the tuna or other fish that are the fishers’ real goal.


Passed by Congress in 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) requires that all imported fish be accompanied by proof that the technology used to catch them does not kill or seriously injure marine mammals in excess of U.S. standards. Congress intended to protect dolphins and whales, American consumers concerned about them, and U.S. fishers’ whose costs are higher because they have to use mammal-safe technology.


But according to the NRDC, that mandate has been “collecting dust for more than 40 years,” because it “has never been enforced by the federal government.” The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which is supposed to enforce the MMPA, admitted as much in its October 2012 Five-Year Plan, which said that as “an initial step” to protect marine mammals, “NMFS will identify the nations that export fish and fish products to the United States from fisheries that have bycatch of marine mammals.”


Warning that “bycatch is pushing many populations to the brink of extinction,” including “the New Zealand sea lion, Mediterranean sperm whale, vaquita, and J-stock minke whale,” the report urges the federal government to take specific steps to protect marine mammals in foreign fisheries, especially by enforcing the MMPA.


First, NRDC recognizes that regulators must promulgate a definition of “U.S. standards” for mammal protection that is specific enough to hold foreign exporters accountable for their bycatch. Until such a standard exists, there is literally nothing for the NMFS to enforce.


Second, NRDC recommends that NMFS enforce the law while keeping in mind international trade obligations, mainly by “treat[ing] all exporters equally and…allow[ing] for flexibility in the means by which exporters meet U.S. bycatch standards.” 

-Matt Bewig


To Learn More:

Net Loss: The Killing of Marine Mammals in Foreign Fisheries (by Zak Smith, Margaretmary Gilroy et al., Natural Resources Defense Council)

Did you Know Buying American Seafood Could Save a Whale? (Natural Resources Defense Council)

Shutdown Ends Food Inspections in U.S., Leaving 90% of U.S. Seafood Imports Unchecked (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

One-Third of Fish Sold as Food are Mislabeled…and Watch out for Sushi Bars (by David Wallechinsky and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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