Sperm whale pod

Feds agree to seafood import rules aimed at protecting whales, dolphins

The U.S. government, in a recent settlement, agreed to adopt rules ensuring seafood imported into the country meets high standards for protecting whales and dolphins

The regulations will require foreign fisheries to meet the same marine mammal protection standards required of U.S. fishers or be denied import privileges — implementing a 40-year-old provision of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

“The new regulations will force other countries to step up and meet U.S. conservation standards — saving hundreds of thousands of whales and dolphins from dying on hooks and in fishing nets around the world,” said Sarah Uhlemann, senior attorney and international program director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “The U.S. government has finally recognized that all seafood consumed in the United States must be ‘dolphin-safe.’ ”

More than 650,000 whales, dolphins and other marine mammals are caught and killed in fishing gear each year, according to the CBD. The animals are “bycatch” of commercial fisheries and either drown outright or are tossed overboard to die.

Despite U.S. efforts to protect marine mammals in its own waters, fishing gear continues to pose the most significant threat to whale and dolphin conservation worldwide.

For example, the vaquita, the world’s smallest porpoise, is being driven to extinction by shrimp gillnets in Mexico’s Gulf of California. Fewer than 100 vaquita remain.

Under U.S. law and the planned new regulations, shrimp from this region would be barred from entering the United States because it does not meet the more protective U.S. marine mammal protection standards. These standards may include modifying fishing gear and closing fishing in some areas to limit the risk of entanglement.

“It’s time to do what it takes to save thousands of whales and dolphins around the world and hold our fish imports to the same standards that we require of our U.S. fishermen,” said Zak Smith of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “This law will help do that. It provides real, enforceable protections for marine mammals and sets up an even playing field that allows our fishermen to be competitive in the U.S. market. If we’d had these standards 40 years ago, we wouldn’t be scrambling today to save the imperiled vaquita. Thankfully, if this law is implemented, other species won’t share their fate.”

Since 1972, the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act has prohibited the United States from allowing seafood to enter the country unless it meets U.S. whale and dolphin standards. Under today’s settlement, the federal government must make a final decision by August 2016 about how to implement this requirement and end unlawful imports. The rules will protect marine mammals and level the playing field for U.S. fishers.

“The public demands and the U.S. can — and by law, must — wield its tremendous purchasing power to save dolphins and whales from foreign fishing nets,” said Todd Steiner, biologist and executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network. “We have the right to ensure that the seafood sold in the U.S. is caught in ways that minimize the death and injury of marine mammals.”

Americans consume some 5 billion pounds of seafood per year, including tuna, swordfish, shrimp and cod. About 90 percent of that seafood is imported and about half is wild-caught.

The settlement was in the U.S. Court of International Trade in New York on behalf of plaintiffs Center for Biological Diversity, Turtle Island Restoration Network and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Read more online at The Wisconsin Gazette