WASHINGTON (CN) – A proposed regulation would prohibit imports from foreign fisheries that do not meet U.S. standards for protecting whales and dolphins under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The action, published Tuesday, “aims to level the playing field for American fishermen who comply with U.S. marine mammal conservation standards, and is intended to help foreign fisheries support a healthy and diverse marine ecosystem,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said. The estimated global bycatch of marine mammals (such as whales and dolphins) is more than 600,000 animals per year.
The U.S. is the third largest consumer of seafood, after China and Japan. In 2009, the most recent year for which complete data is available, 4.8 billion pounds of seafood were consumed by Americans, with 91 percent of it imported from foreign countries.
“This rule proposes a system that would lead many foreign nations to improve their fishing practices to protect marine mammals,” said Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for NOAA Fisheries. “Those changes to current practice across the world will mark one of the most significant steps in the global conservation of marine mammals in decades, and could save substantial numbers of these vulnerable animals from injury and death.”
The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) was passed in 1972, and it contained provisions regarding “incidental and serious injury of marine mammals in both domestic and foreign fisheries,” according to the proposed action.
However, implementation of the act has been difficult. NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service initially issued general permits for domestic fisheries, and export standards for foreign fisheries were tied to that program. Then the permits were legally challenged in 1988 due to difficulties in determining the optimum sustainable population standard used to establish the program.
In November 1988, Congress implemented a five-year moratorium on incidental marine mammal take (injury or mortality). During that period, domestic fisheries were required to participate in a data-gathering program by carrying mandatory observers and logging and reporting marine mammal interactions in return for a temporary exemption from the moratorium on incidental take. Import regulations for foreign fisheries were deemed “no longer coherent” during that time due to the suspension of the general permit program, according to the action.
In 1994, sections were added to the MMPA that included a new metric for determining sustainable populations of marine mammals, and a requirement for categorizing commercial fisheries into three groups based on the frequency of interactions with marine mammals, but the act’s import provisions were never modified to incorporate the new standards.
The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Turtle Island Restoration Network (TIRN) petitioned the NMFS in March 2008 regarding the import of swordfish from nations that could not provide reasonable proof that their fishing practices were not impacting ocean mammals, and the agency began crafting a rule to address the petition.
When NOAA heard from 21 environmental organizations in 2012, it decided to broaden the scope of the swordfish rule to include all foreign fisheries.
“The new regulations will force countries to meet U.S. conservation standards if they want access to this market, saving thousands of whales and dolphins from dying on hooks and in fishing nets around the world. The U.S. government has finally recognized that all seafood consumed in the United States must be dolphin-safe,” Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the CBD was quoted as saying in a statement jointly released by the CBD, TIRN and the National Resources Defense Council.
The rule, if finalized, would provide for a five-year grace period for foreign countries to investigate current practices and implement changes to meet the new requirements. To the extent possible, NOAA will work with foreign nations to “build capacity” to meet the rule’s standards, the agency said.
Written comments are due by 5 p.m. Eastern Time Nov. 9, 2015. The agency plans to seek input from other nations on the proposed rule at bilateral and multilateral meetings.
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