For 40 years, federal watchdogs have failed to enforce a law that could save thousands of whales and dolphins from negligent foreign fishing practices.
More than 650,000 marine mammals are killed or seriously injured every year in foreign fisheries after being hooked, entangled or trapped in fishing gear, according to a new report issued today by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
And the report says the US is complicit in the deaths because a law to protect marine mammals is not being enforced. The Marine Mammal Protection Act requires countries exporting fish products to prove the fish were not caught in violation of US standards that limit serious injury and death of marine mammals.
"For 40 years, federal watchdogs have failed to enforce a law that could save thousands of whales and dolphins from negligent foreign fishing practices", says Zak Smith, attorney with NRDC and co-author of the report, Net Loss: The Killing of Marine Mammals in Foreign Fisheries.
However the US's own fishing fleet has to comply with the law, adds Smith. "Well-meaning US fishermen are being undermined by their own government, which holds them accountable, but not their foreign counterparts."
Acy Cooper, vice president of the Louisiana Shrimpers Association, says: "Foreign fishing companies can undercut our prices because they don't have to invest in ensuring that their exports to the US were caught in a manner that protects marine mammals.
"Until foreign fleets see real consequences for failing to abide by the law, marine mammals will continue to be harmed around the world and American fishermen will be disadvantaged."
According to NRDC's report, 91% of seafood consumed in the United States is imported and nearly every foreign fish product sold in the US violates a federal marine mammal protection law.
"The wild-caught seafood most enjoyed by Americans - shrimp, tuna, crab, lobster, and salmon - present a particularly significant risk to marine mammals due to the dangerous fishing practices associated with them abroad."
Species most affected by seafood exports for American markets include:
- North Atlantic right whale: at risk from Canada's lobster and crabbing practices
- New Zealand sea lion: at risk from New Zealand's squid industry
- Mediterranean sperm whale: at risk from Italy & Turkey's lack of enforcement
- Vaquita: at risk from shrimp fisheries not complying with Mexico's regulations
- Spinner dolphins: at risk from India and Sri Lanka's tuna industry
- Baltic and Black Sea harbor porpoises: at risk from inadequate regulatory measures
- J-Stock minke whale: at risk from a range of Japanese and South Korean fishing practices
- False killer whale: at risk from Pacific Ocean tuna, swordfish and marlin fishing practices
An aggressive, science-based plan adopted by the US in 1994 has reduced marine mammal bycatch by nearly 30% over 20 years and put special measures in place to save populations at highest risk.
Now, says Smith, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the federal agency with jurisdiction over the interpretation and enforcement of the MMPA, needs to hold other nations to the same bycatch standards.
"Until the US enforces the law, which requires importing countries to prove they are meeting American standards, consumers can play a role in protecting whales, dolphins and sea lions by choosing American-caught seafood.
"No one wants their shrimp cocktail to come with a side of dolphin, but that's essentially what's happening when we eat imported fish that isn't held to the same standard as American seafood."