- The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries issued a final rule earlier this month to implement import provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which was enacted in 1972.
- The rule aims to prohibit seafood imports from countries where fisheries kill more marine mammals such as whales and dolphins than U.S. standards allow.
- Bycatch is the greatest direct cause of marine mammal injury and death in the United States and around the world, according to the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission.
Exporters of fish and fish products to the United States must now follow the same protective rules for marine mammal bycatch as domestic fishing operations.
The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries issued a final rule on August 11 to implement import provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which was enacted in 1972.
The rule establishes criteria by which a harvesting nation’s regulatory programs for reducing marine mammal bycatch will be evaluated, as well as the procedures required to receive authorization to export fish to the U.S. Essentially, the rule aims to prohibit seafood imports from countries where fisheries kill more whales and dolphins than U.S. standards allow.
Marine mammal bycatch refers to any instance of a marine mammal such as a dolphin or whale becoming unintentionally entangled, ensnared, or caught by fishing gear such as nets, lines, traps, or hooks. Bycatch is the greatest direct cause of marine mammal injury and death in the United States and around the world, according to the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission.
Despite efforts by the U.S. to protect marine mammals in its own waters, fishing gear continues to pose a significant threat to whale and dolphin populations. About 650,000 whales, dolphins and other marine mammals are unintentionally caught and killed in fishing gear worldwide, the Center for Biological Diversity reports.
For example, the critically endangered vaquita, the world’s smallest porpoise, is being driven to extinction by gillnets, which vaquita become ensnared in after poachers illegally set the nets to catch shrimp and a fish called totoaba in Mexico’s Gulf of California. Under the new rule, seafood from this region would be barred from entering the U.S., as it does not meet the more protective U.S. standards.
The MMPA requires the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), informally known as NOAA Fisheries, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to address marine mammal bycatch, but until now the import provisions of the law have not been implemented.
“Fishing gear entanglements or accidental catch is a global threat to marine mammal populations,” Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for fisheries, said in a statement. “Establishing these bycatch criteria mark a significant step forward in the global conservation of marine mammals.”
In issuing the final rule, NOAA also established a five-year exemption period that allows foreign harvesting nations time to assess their marine mammal stocks, estimate and lower their bycatch, and develop regulatory programs in order to meet the new criteria on an ongoing basis. NOAA Fisheries will consult with harvesting nations and work with them, where possible, to build their capacity to meet the rule’s standards.
“NOAA carefully considered potential impacts of a fishery being unable to obtain certification under this rule, and we’re confident the seafood supply chain is adequately robust to prevent any disruption to consumer access,” John Henderschedt, director of NOAA Fisheries Office of International Affairs and Seafood Inspection, said in a statement. “At the same time, NOAA intends to work closely with U.S. trading partners to ensure that their fisheries are capable of achieving certification.”
The new rule takes effect on January 1, 2017 and will be fully implemented by 2022. Exporting nations will be required to track and monitor fisheries and whale, dolphin and other marine mammal populations, modify fishing gear where necessary, and even restrict fishing in some areas in order to limit entanglement risk.
The rule is the result of a settlement in a lawsuit brought by three conservation groups — the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Turtle Island Restoration Network — two years ago that challenged the U.S. government over its failure to implement the 40-year-old import provisions of the MMPA.
While conservationists expressed their support of the NOAA releasing the final rule, they were critical of the timeframe set for its full implementation.
“We are very pleased the rule finally came out,” Sarah Uhleman, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, told Mongabay. “Since 1972, the MMPA has required NMFS to ban seafood imports that don’t meet U.S. marine mammal protection standards, so it’s definitely time for the U.S. to start implementing the law.”
Uhleman noted that the United States is the world’s second-largest importer of seafood, sourcing from around 125 countries. “If these countries wish to continue to access our lucrative seafood market, they must demonstrate to NMFS that they limit bycatch to U.S. levels, which are quite strict and protective,” she said. “We are disappointed, however, that the rule wouldn’t be fully effective until 2022.”