A coalition of conservation groups filed suit in federal court today against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Turtle Island Restoration Network demand in the lawsuit that NMFS comply with the federal law requiring the agency to substantially reduce the killing of marine mammals during commercial fishing operations.
“The recent beaching of dozens of whales off New England shows just how important it is for the government to protect marine mammals. But, each year, hundreds of whales, dolphins, and porpoises are caught and drowned in fishing gear in U.S. waters. The Bush Administration must kick into high gear to stop this needless killing,” said Sylvia Liu, a senior attorney at Oceana.
Commercial bycatch is more than a just a problem, it is a worldwide crisis that needs to be addressed immediately. New research released this month by the World Wildlife Fund finds that nearly 60,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises are killed each year worldwide by destructive fishing practices. This is a figure three times greater than the deliberate killing of an average of 21,000 whales a year by whalers during the 20th century, a practice that caused severe declines in nearly all large whale species.
Fishing gear such as, longlines, gillnets and trawl nets can trap and drown marine mammals. Some, such as large whales, while not immediately drowned, often swim away with portions of gear or nets wrapped around them. This gear can cut into and become imbedded in the skin causing a number of debilitating and life threatening problems, which often result in a slow death. Each year, over 400 harbor porpoises, more than 400 common dolphins, and nearly 250 pilot whales are killed by commercial fishing gear in U.S. waters.
In 1972, Congress adopted the MMPA to protect marine mammal populations, many of which had severely declined due to fishing and other human activities. In 1994, the law was amended to require more aggressive steps to protect marine mammals from being captured and drowned in commercial fishing gears.
“NMFS has failed time and time again to meet congressionally set deadlines for taking actions designed to prevent the needless killing of marine mammals. As it has done with so many other environmental laws, this administration believes it can simply ignore the Marine Mammal Protection Act,” stated Brendan Cummings, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “We are confident the courts will hold otherwise.”
While the MMPA calls for the reduction of all marine mammal bycatch, certain high risk populations are subject to special protections including the development of “Take Reduction Plans.” These plans, developed by teams of experts, are required to be implemented within 20 months of a scientific assessment concluding that populations are threatened by commercial fishing. Well-designed Take Reduction Plans will help rebuild these at-risk populations. The agency has only convened six teams and completed four take reduction plans.
“To date, NMFS has failed to develop many of the Take Reduction Plans that are warranted by scientific assessments,” stated Todd Steiner, Director of the Turtle Island Restoration Network. “Our lawsuit calls upon NMFS to complete take reduction plans for strategic stocks that the agency itself has identified as being threatened by commercial fishing.” Three of the key populations that are the focus of the lawsuit are the harbor porpoises off of Central California, the common dolphins in the Western North Atlantic, and long-finned and short-finned pilot whales in the Western North Atlantic.
Under the MMPA, commercial fisheries are required to reduce incidental mortality and serious injury of all marine mammals to “insignificant levels approaching a zero mortality and serious injury rate.” The deadline for achieving this goal passed on April 30, 2001, with almost no progress. The lawsuit also calls on NMFS to issue to Congress a long overdue report (due April 30, 1998) detailing the progress all commercial fisheries have made towards reducing bycatch.
Citizens have expressed outrage over the practice of discarding unwanted marine mammals, birds, sea turtles, and large numbers of fish, injured, dead and dying, during massive scale fishing operations. This summer, over 110,000 Americans supported Oceana’s petition demanding that NMFS implement a program to count, cap, and control wasted catch, the largest number ever to comment formally on an ocean related issue. The fisheries responsible for such killings use longlines, gillnets, and trawl nets — fishing techniques that indiscriminately kill large numbers of non-targeted ocean life.
Oceana is an international environmental organization created for the sole purpose of protecting the world’s oceans to sustain the circle of life. In May 2002, Oceana merged with the American Oceans Campaign to bring together dedicated people from around the world to build an international movement to save the oceans through advocacy, science, economics, legal action, grassroots mobilization, and public education. www.oceana.org
The Center for Biological Diversity is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation, protection, and restoration of biodiversity, native species, ecosystems, and public lands in North America and the world’s oceans through science, education, policy and litigation. www.biologicaldiversity.org
The Turtle Island Restoration Network (TIRN) has worked since 1989 to protect and restore endangered sea turtles and marine biodiversity worldwide by integrating the ecological needs of marine species and the economic needs of local communities that depend on the marine environment. TIRN is based in Marin County, California and has offices in San Jose, Costa Rica and Houston, Texas. www.seaturtles.org
For more information, please contact:
Robert Kaplan, 202-478-6130, [email protected]
Sylvia F. Liu, Oceana, (202) 833-3900, [email protected]
Brendan R. Cummings, Center for Biological Diversity, (909) 659-6053 ext. 301
Video B-Roll is available:
Sample Video Clips of Bycatch
(Use Only With Permission of Oceana. Beta Available. Contact: Robert Kaplan at 202-478-6130, [email protected])
Some Footage Courtesy:
World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, National Audubon Society, and Habitat Media
Part I: Overview of Bycatch: Seals on longlines; Dolphins, Sharks, Whales in Gillnets; Sea Turtles in Trawler nets; Shoveling fish overboard
Part II: Northeast US: Dolphins, Sharks in Gillnets; Factory ship waste
Part III: Southeastern US: Sea Turtles in Trawl nets; Observer taking notes; Marlin thrown overboard
Part IV: Western US; Turtles, Sharks on longlines
Part V: Gear Types: Gillnets, Trawlers, Factory ships