Bycatch, the incidental catch of non-target species, takes the lives of more than 650,000 whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals each year. It is one of the greatest threats to marine mammals worldwide, threatening some species with extinction. The Vaquita, found only in the northern part of the Gulf of California, and the Mediterranean sperm whale are just two of many species suffering from the harmful effects of global bycatch as their populations continue to struggle.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) gave many marine mammals some of the world’s strongest protections against commercial fishing. Implementation of the MMPA has helped many species’ population numbers recover. Until recently, however, these protections have been afforded only in U.S. waters. Without global implementation, we cannot ensure a level playing field that protects not only marine mammal populations, but also U.S. fishermen who could be undercut by unregulated or under-regulated international fisheries.
On August 15, 2016, the federal government published a final rule to implement import provisions of the MMPA to combat this issue. The rule bans the importation of commercial fish or fish products, including highly processed products like fish sticks, which have been caught with commercial fishing gear that incidentally kills or seriously injures marine mammals in excess of U.S. standards. This will ensure equivalent protections for marine mammals in both foreign and U.S. waters and highlights the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) leadership in reducing marine mammal bycatch around the world. International fisheries will be held to the same standards as domestic fisheries, allowing U.S. fisheries to compete in a fair market that rewards compliance with regulations to protect marine mammals and reduce entanglement
The rule provides a five year exemption period that allows foreign nations time to assess marine mammal stocks, estimate bycatch, and develop regulatory programs comparable to that of the U.S. These regulatory programs may include gear modifications, time and area closures and specialized training for releasing marine mammals unharmed.
Oceana commends NOAA for its commitment to protecting these species and urges the agency to continue making strides at home. NOAA is considering a rule to implement bycatch caps on five marine mammal and four sea turtle species in the drift gillnet swordfish fishery off the West Coast. This fishery is the only Category 1 fishery—one that causes frequent incidental death and serious injury of marine mammals—on the West Coast. Earlier this year, the Pacific Fishery Management Council proposed caps to minimize bycatch and to conserve non-target species. The federal government should implement the rule immediately, as 90 percent of the fishing effort, and consequent risk of harm to marine mammals and sea turtles, occurs from August 15 through January 31.
NOAA’s action to implement the MMPA’s import provision is a critical step in conserving marine mammal populations, and Oceana applauds the agency for upholding its position as a global conservation leader, especially as it benefits domestic fishers and the seafood market worldwide.