WASHINGTON— By today’s deadline, seafood-exporting nations worldwide must have adopted regulations to reduce entanglements of whales, dolphins and seals in fishing gear or face a U.S. import ban.
Under a National Marine Fisheries Service rule published in 2016, foreign fishing operations must meet the same marine mammal protection standards applied to U.S. fisheries to maintain access to the lucrative American seafood market.
Each year more than 650,000 whales, dolphins and other marine mammals are caught and killed in fishing gear. These animals are unintentional “bycatch” of commercial fisheries and typically either drown outright or are tossed overboard to die from their injuries.
The U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act requires U.S. fishers to meet tough bycatch standards, including fisheries closures, gear modifications and tracking requirements. As of today, other nations must prove they have comparable rules for tracking, regulating and ultimately lowering their bycatch.
“This rule will save thousands of whales and dolphins around the world from being killed by hooks and fishing nets,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The United States is wisely wielding its tremendous market power to ensure that all seafood eaten here is ‘dolphin-safe.’”
Since 1972 the Marine Mammal Protection Act has prohibited the United States from allowing seafood to enter the country unless it meets U.S. whale and dolphin protection standards. But for the past 40 years, the federal government has largely failed to enforce the ban. In 2014 conservation groups sued to enforce the import requirement, and the 2016 rule and today’s deadline are the result of that settlement.
As the world’s top importer of seafood, the United States consumes 5 billion pounds of seafood each year, including tuna, swordfish, shrimp and cod. An estimated 80% of that seafood is imported, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. In 2020 the agency identified 131 nations that must submit an application by today, demonstrating that their export fisheries meet U.S. standards.
“The American public should feel confident that all of the fish and fish products it eats meet U.S. standards for protecting whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals,” said Zak Smith, senior attorney and director of international wildlife conservation at NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council). “If other countries want to sell us their fish and fish products, they have to submit evidence that it meets our standards by today’s deadline or find another market for their whale and dolphin killing seafood.”
Currently many nations lack bycatch requirements as robust as those of the United States. For instance, few countries comprehensively monitor marine mammal bycatch or require adequate mitigation. Under the rule, the Fisheries Service has until November 2022 to decide which nations are meeting U.S. standards. For all countries that fail to demonstrate comparable protections for marine mammals, the United States will ban their noncompliant fisheries’ imports by Jan. 1, 2023.
“Consumers in the United States do not want to purchase seafood — no matter where it is caught — that is linked to the suffering and death of marine mammals,” said Susan Millward, director of the marine animal program at the Animal Welfare Institute. “The enormous body count resulting from the bycatch of marine mammals causes immense suffering, disrupts marine ecology, contributes to the decline and near extinction of a number of species, and must be reduced. The MMPA provides a tool to do that, but only if it is properly enforced.”