SAN FRANCISCO — The U.S. Commerce Department announced today that it is considering banning the imports of foreign swordfish until exporting countries can provide proof that their fishing practices are equally protective of marine mammals — including whales, dolphins, and sea lions — as methods used by U.S. fishermen. Today’s announcement, published in the Federal Register, comes in response to a petition filed in March by the Turtle Island Restoration Network and the Center for Biological Diversity seeking enforcement of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.  See the Federal Register Notice.The Act requires any country wishing to export fish products to the United States to provide proof that the country’s fishing practices do not harm or kill marine mammals in excess of U.S. standards. Information gained from a Freedom of Information Act request has revealed that the U.S. government has ignored this mandatory duty for decades, though evidence shows that foreign fishing fleets kill hundreds of thousands of marine mammals every year. Swordfish fleets, which use gillnets and longlines, are particularly deadly to marine mammals.

“All the U.S. government has to do to save thousands of whales, dolphins, and seals each year is enforce existing law,” said Mike Milne, of Turtle Island Restoration Network. “Restricting access to the U.S. market is a golden opportunity to make the global fishing fleet more sustainable.”

The Marine Mammal Protection Act was designed to help ensure that U.S. fishers are not put at a competitive disadvantage from poorly-regulated foreign fleets and to put market pressure on foreign nations to improve their fishing practices to reduce impacts on marine mammals. Nevertheless, despite the fact that most swordfish is caught with fishing gear that entangles and kills marine mammals, the U.S. government has allowed the importation of swordfish from more than 40 countries without requiring any proof of impacts on marine mammals. Banning swordfish imports would also benefit endangered sea turtles that are captured and killed on longlines set to catch swordfish — a primary cause of the decline and near-extinction of the Pacific leatherback sea turtle. The U.S. is the one of the world’s top importers of swordfish, bringing in more than 20 million pounds every year.

“Right now most consumers have no clue that the swordfish steak on their plate comes with a side of dead dolphins, whales, seals and sea lions,” said Andrea Treece, staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “By banning imported swordfish until foreign fleets clean up their acts, the United States can lead the way in making international fisheries more sustainable and ensure that U.S. consumers aren’t unintentionally harming the creatures they care about.”

Domestic swordfish fishers use longlines, gillnets, and harpoons to catch swordfish. While U.S. longline and gillnet fisheries still catch significant numbers of marine mammals and other non-target species, regulations imposing time-area closures and requiring the use of net-extenders, acoustic deterrents, dehooking devices, and various safe-handling measures have substantially reduced marine mammal bycatch and mortality in U.S. fisheries. A harpoon fishery for swordfish in southern California has no marine mammal bycatch.

“Marine mammal populations around the globe are suffering because the shelves of the American supermarkets are filled with illegal imports of foreign swordfish,” Milne added. “It’s time the U.S. government followed the law and protected the American people’s love of and desire for healthy marine mammal populations.”

The government is accepting comments on the petition for the next 45 days.