Calling out the Cacophony: Sea Shepherd Legal Submits Comments on Proposed Navy Sonar Operations

In the popular imagination, the ocean is synonymous with tranquility.  The crashing noise of a violent storm serves merely to punctuate, throwing into sharper relief the soothing sounds of lapping waves and gentle breeze that we so frequently associate with the sea.

Yet, as marine bioacoustics expert Christopher Clark explains, we deceive ourselves with these quaint notions:

“We look out at the ocean and see this bucolic seascape, and some seagulls flying along the horizon and maybe a sailboat, and we think everything is hunky dory. Well, it isn’t. We are injecting so much noise that we are effectively acoustically bleaching the world’s oceans.” — Prof. Christopher Clark, Cornell University

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Credit: OceanCare

Over the past several decades, marine noise pollution has grown at an exponential rate. Noise from vessel traffic is doubling every decade.  Pile-driving, dredging, and seismic exploration for oil and gas add to the cacophony.  This last source, typically employing “air guns,” may be the worst of all.  As Clark observes, the noise from an air-gun survey is truly mind-boggling:

“It is so loud that when someone is surveying off northern Brazil, I can hear that explosion on a small piece of instrumentation that I deploy 60 miles off the coast of Virginia.”  — Prof. Christopher Clark, Cornell University

On top of all this, the U.S. Navy and other military forces around the world harass marine mammals with sonar, repeatedly blasting them with sound waves that cause severe stress, behavioral changes, masking (i.e., difficulty perceiving important natural sounds), non-auditory injury (i.e., gas bubble formation/rectified diffusion), strandings, and noise-induced loss of hearing sensitivity (a.k.a., “threshold shift”).

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Credit: Collective Evolution

At Sea Shepherd Legal, we are fighting back.  On May 30, we filed a comprehensive document opposing a proposed regulation that would authorize the Navy to harass marine mammals all over the world through sonar training operations.

Harassing, or “taking,” marine mammals in this way is presumptively illegal under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).  Nevertheless, by invoking the MMPA’s exception for “incidental take,” the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) proposes to issue regulations authorizing the Navy to harm almost incalculable numbers of marine mammals while conducting training exercises using low-frequency sonar.  The breadth of the proposed rule—and of the underlying activity it would facilitate—cannot be overstated.  This is, quite literally, a rulemaking of global proportions.

NMFS’ proposed rule would authorize “Level B” harassment of more than 100 species and stocks of marine mammals, with the list of potentially impacted species reading like a taxonomist’s index of the world’s cetaceans and pinnipeds.  Level B harassment is no trifling matter.  It is statutorily defined as “any act that disturbs or is likely to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of natural behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, surfacing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering, to a point where such behavioral patterns are abandoned or significantly altered.”   16 U.S.C. § 1362(18).

The proposed rule would authorize not just a few Level B takes here and there; it would authorize Level B harassment of up to 12 percent of any of the 100-plus stocks and species every single year, over a five-year period.  And the rule would not limit these takes to a particular region or stretch of ocean; save for polar waters, the Navy would have free reign to harass marine mammals in all of the world’s oceans, including the Mediterranean Sea.

As we explain in our comments, this rule would violate the MMPA because it ignores cumulative impacts and fails to prescribe sufficient mitigation measures.  Worse still, the rule is a slap in the face to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  Less than one year ago, the Ninth Circuit rebuked NMFS regarding the previous iteration of this same rule (covering the 2012 to 2017 time period).  NRDC, Inc. v. Pritzker, 828 F.3d 1125 (9th Cir. 2016).  Remarkably, just ten months later, NMFS repeats these mistakes, proposing a rule that runs roughshod over the MMPA’s formidable limitations governing “incidental takes.”  If NMFS does not revise the rule to incorporate additional mitigation measures and to properly account for cumulative impacts, the agency will, yet again, violate the MMPA.

To read our full analysis, click here.

To support our efforts to combat marine noise pollution, including ongoing work to address the plight of endangered Cook Inlet beluga whales and to fight against seismic surveys around the world, please consider making a tax-deductible donation.

Sea Shepherd Legal Securing Justice for the Sea – A 2016 Retrospective

At Sea Shepherd Legal, we are working to change the polices, practices, actions and inactions that imperil marine species — adding a new dimension to Sea Shepherd’s 40-year record of success.

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Using litigation, policy development and public outreach, we work globally on many issues.  Here are just a few of our 2016 projects:

(1)  Conducted training and provided materials to assist the Republic of Palau with enforcing its new 500,000 km² marine sanctuary against rampant poaching.   For more information, see this press release: palau-workshop-i-press-release.

(2)  Demanded the listing of imperiled marine species under domestic and international regimes.  From manatees and oceanic whitetip sharks under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) to thresher sharks, silky sharks, and devil rays under CITES, we are insisting that legal regimes live up to their potential.  If environmental laws are just slogans, they might as well be thrown in the dumpster.  We mean to see these laws enforced.

(3)  Provided legal briefing to officials in China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mauritania, Senegal and Singapore to halt ongoing illicit fishing activities discovered in Sea Shepherd Global’s Operation Icefish II and Operation Driftnet.

(4) Submitted amicus curiae brief in U.S. Court of Appeals to (1) support release of captive orca Lolita from Miami Seaquarium; (2) contest inappropriately narrow interpretation of “take” under the ESA; and (3) contest suggestion by lower court that captive animals are less susceptible to “take” than are wild animals.

(5) Opposed three applications by oil & gas exploration entities for “Incidental Take Permits” to harass (harm or even kill) Cook Inlet belugas.

(6) Filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for failing to timely provide requested materials related to Cook Inlet belugas.

(7) Partnered with the Latin American Environmental Prosecutors Network to enhance protections for marine wildlife and habitat throughout the region.  Among other efforts, we secured 140,000-plus signatures to pressure the government of Brazil to take specific action to protect the iconic Guiana dolphin from bycatch and irresponsible coastal development.

 . . . and a whole lot more.

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As the challenges mount, we rise to meet them.  This past year was overflowing with threats to marine ecosystems and wildlife.  Far from leaving us feeling overwhelmed, the dire state of affairs only strengthens our resolve.

Thank you to the entire Sea Shepherd family and its legion of supporters around the globe.  Here’s to 2017.  Bring it on.

Is Rio’s Guiana Dolphin the Next Vaquita? A Moment of Hope in Brazilian Prosecutors’ Fight to Save an Icon

As we have mentioned several times in the past, the iconic Guiana dolphin (Sotalia guianensis), or “boto-cinza” in Portuguese, may soon disappear from Rio’s waters.  The region’s two populations — in Guanabara Bay and Sepetiba Bay, respectively — are on a collision course with extirpation.

Since 2003, Rio’s Guiana dolphin numbers have dropped precipitously.  Nearly 10 Guiana dolphins are killed every month in fishing nets in Sepetiba Bay.  A decade ago, Septebia Bay was home to some 2,000 individuals.  Today, there are fewer than 800 remaining, and the Guiana dolphin may become a memory in just a few short years.

Additional threats include pollution, depletion of prey and habitat, ship traffic, port development and other coastal impacts.

“What we are fighting for here is to ensure that the Guiana dolphin doesn’t go the way of Mexico’s vaquita porpoise –- a species moments away from extinction due to some of the same threats,” explained Sea Shepherd Legal’s Executive Director, Catherine Pruett. Scientists recently concluded that just 60 vaquita are left.  (For information on Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s latest efforts to protect the vaquita, click here.)

The good news:  Brazilian prosecutors have shown that they are willing and able to bring the fight to the illegal fishermen who are pushing the Guiana dolphin to the brink.

Early this week, the Ministério Público Federal for the State of Rio de Janeiro (Ministério Público) filed 15 civil actions against a total of 31 defendants for illegal, industrial-scale fishing in Sepetiba Bay.  The Ministério Público is a body of independent public prosecutors in Brazil.  Although technically a part of the executive branch, federal prosecutors in Brazil form an independent institution.  Thus, unlike the U.S. Attorney General and U.S. Attorneys, government officers subject to presidential appointment and removal, prosecutors within the Ministério Public are not beholden to such clear political control.

This latest series of filings is part of the Ministério Público’s broader campaign to crack down on illegal activity harming the Guiana dolphin.  Thanks to one of our Brazilian colleagues, we were able to translate the official press release into English.  The translated document is available here: baia-de-sepetiba.  The original (in Portuguese) can be accessed here.

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As the press release explains, one of the major culprits is purse-seining for “bait fish” (e.g., sardines), which are then used to catch tuna.  Given the sensitive coastal environment and presence of the boto-cinza, fishing with purse seines has been illegal in Sepetiba Bay since 1993.  But in the absence of adequate enforcement, it still occurs.

We are happy to see Brazil’s prosecutors doing their part to confront this existential threat.  The Ministério Público clearly understands the gravity of the situation, observing as follows:  “If the percentage of mortality remains high, the species is expected to disappear from Sepetiba Bay in eight years.”

In many nations — certainly in the U.S. — federal prosecutors are loathe to call out the federal government for contributing to an environmental problem.  The Ministério Público’s willlingness to do so is especially encouraging.

In this case, the offending vessels have actually benefited from government largess in the form of diesel subsidies.  The Ministério Público makes no bones about it:  These subsidies must stop, and they must stop now.  Federal prosecutor Monique Checker strikes to the heart of the matter:  “If the Union [the government of Brazil] financially helps environmental offenders, it is itself participating in the criminal practice.”

Well said, Monique.  We stand firmly with you.

Take Action Alert: Stop the Killing Contests in Chesapeake Bay — Cownose Rays Need Your Help!

Mahatma Gandhi famously stated that “the greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”  Under this standard, the United States, and Maryland in particular, should be judged very harshly for the inhumane treatment of cownose rays.

For some time now, summer on the Chesapeake Bay has meant slaughter for cownose rays.  Attracted by organized killing “contests,” bowmen pack up their gear, hit the water in their boats, and let arrows fly in an orgy of bloodlust.  After shooting the rays, often point-blank, with arrows, the “contestants” drag them out of the water by hooks, beat them mercilessly with metal clubs, and then toss them into boxes where they slowly suffocate to death.  The rays are then dumped into the river like garbage.  Untold numbers  of rays are brutally killed every year — many of which are pregnant females.

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This undercover video, captured by Showing Animals Respect and Kindness (SHARK), reveals a level of depravity that defies description.

Because this horrific “competition” is judged based on the weight of the catch, pregnant rays are an attractive option.  At the same time, though, these pregnant mothers present a challenge:  How to keep the pups inside during the weigh-in?

Contestants try everything from zip ties (“They put a tie strap on it so she can’t spit her babies out before they get back”) to pushing the babies back inside with their hands.  One clip even shows a contestant who tied the baby to its mother with a string, the pup simply dangling in the air.  

But here is the most shocking part:  Killing cownose rays for entertainment through inhumane contests is currently legal in Maryland.  

To protect these native migratory rays, and to preserve the Chesapeake Bay’s ecosystem, Maryland must prohibit such cruel and unnecessary contests.  In the past, proponents have attempted to justify the killing as necessary for the protection of the local shellfish industry.  However, recent scientific studies have shown that cownose rays are not to blame for shellfish losses.  In fact, these rays have low reproductive rates and are, therefore, incapable of rapid population increases — making them particularly vulnerable to overfishing.

Together with SHARK, Fish Feel, Maryland Votes for Animals, the Center for Biological Diversity, Last Chance for Animals, and other groups, Sea Shepherd Legal is pushing for an end to this legally sanctioned slaughter.

Take Action: Tell your state legislators and Governor Hogan to support proposed legislation that will stop these inhumane, cownose ray killing contests.

Write or call Governor Hogan:

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan
Call: 410-974-3901 or 1-800-811-8336
Online at: http://governor.maryland.gov/mail/default.asp

Sign the online petition.

Victory at CITES! Committee Votes to List the Silky Shark, Thresher Sharks, and Mobula Rays

We did it.  In a collective effort supported by numerous NGOs — and with the backing of several key nations — the committee tasked with considering species proposals voted today to recommend listing of silky sharks, thresher sharks, and mobula rays under CITES Appendix II.  While the committee’s recommendation could be overturned in the full plenary session tomorrow, we believe such an outcome is unlikely given the strong support for the listings.

Sea Shepherd Legal galvanized support in the days preceding this momentous occasion.  By relentlessly engaging delegates from all corners of the globe — and by hosting a packed side event — we did everything in our power to ensure this result.

Today’s developments stand in stark contrast to the position of the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which recently found that the bigeye and common thresher do not warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  NMFS made a grave mistake in reaching this conclusion.  Along with several other groups, Sea Shepherd Legal has been working to win these sharks the ESA protections that they deserve.

This victory is only the beginning.  Much work remains to be accomplished.  We need to list more sharks and rays.  More importantly, we must push for immediate and effective implementation of these new listings, along with greater enforcement of existing domestic and regional conservation measures.

Today, we celebrate.  Tomorrow, we continue the fight.

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Silky shark.  Photo credit: Alex Hofford.

Sea Shepherd Legal Packs the House in Johannesburg, Calling for CITES Protections for Sharks, Rays, and Other Marine Species

In just a few days, the international community will have a rare opportunity to give sharks, rays, and other marine species a measure of the protection they deserve.  Early next week, the parties to CITES will decide whether to list the silky shark, all species of thresher sharks, all species of mobula rays, the bangaii cardinalfish, the clarion angelfish, and the nautilus.  If successful, these listings will create serious legal obstacles to unchecked international trade — trade that is pushing these species to the brink.  It’s not enough, but it’s a significant step in the right direction.

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Last night, Sea Shepherd Legal held a panel discussion, calling for parties to do the right thing by supporting the proposals in favor of greater protections for marine species.  Featuring a compelling presentation by a distinguished biologist and stirring endorsements by official delegates from Brazil and the Philippines, the event galvanized support ahead of next week’s critical votes.

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The parties are informed.  The world is watching.  Should the CITES community fail to respond, they will have no excuses to offer.  Parties:  Do the right thing.  Vote “yes.”

 

Giving Teeth to Toothfish Protections: CITES Listing Is a Must

This is the third entry in a series live from CITES CoP 17 in Johannesburg, South Africa

Known as “white gold” among illegal fishermen, Patagonian and Antarctic toothfish can fetch as much as $US 83 million for the catch from a single vessel.  In the face of this lucrative market, toothfish populations have experienced precipitous declines throughout their range.  Some of the only protections against the overharvest of toothfish are provided by the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR or Convention).

Here’s the problem:  CCAMLR is legally binding on only a small fraction of the world’s nations.  CCAMLR boasts but 25 Members and 11 Acceding States.  That means that only 36 nations, or approximately 18% of the world’s countries, have agreed to bind themselves to CCAMLR’s conservation measures.

So what?, you might be thinking.  Not every nation targets toothfish.  As long as the fishing nations are bound to the Convention, who cares?  And the really bad guys — pirate ships, like the Thunder — ignore laws entirely.   

The second thought may be right.  Extreme scofflaws are only deterred by stiff enforcement, which is where Sea Shepherd vessels like the Sam Simon and Steve Irwin come into play.  But the first thought — that CCAMLR is good enough as far as the law is concerned — fails to account for the complexities of the problem.

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The Sam Simon hauls in miles of illegal gillnet abandoned by the Thunder.

Unfortunately, CCAMLR does not cover all nations whose vessels ply the Southern Ocean for toothfish.  Over the past decade, a number of nations that are not CCAMLR signatories have reportedly flagged vessels identified as engaging in illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing in Convention waters.  Moreover, CCAMLR’s reach does not extend to the many nations that import toothfish in international trade.  These nations fuel the  burgeoning demand for toothfish in international trade.

Bottom line:  We have a slew of nations not bound by CCAMLR that either (A) flag vessels that harvest toothfish, or (B) import toothfish.

Enter CITES.  Where CCAMLR suffers from limited membership, CITES boasts a nearly universal membership.  Out of 196 nations, 183 are parties to CITES.

If toothfish were listed under CITES Appendix I, commercial trade between CITES parties (the vast majority of the world) would be banned.  If, more realistically, toothfish were listed under CITES Appendix II, commercial trade could still occur, but non-CCAMLR states involved in fishing would face serious procedural hurdles designed to prevent fishing “detrimental” to the survival of the targeted toothfish species.

Recognizing the benefits of a CITES listing, in 2002, Australia tabled a proposal to list toothfish under Appendix II.  Unfortunately, Australia withdrew this proposal in the face of opposition, and the CITES CoP settled for a “solution” proposed by Chile.  This “solution” requested the CITES parties to adopt and implement the CCAMLR catch document scheme.  Nevertheless, despite the apparent good intentions out of which it emerged, the 2002 compromise has been an absolute disaster.

Now, with this background, we turn to its relevance for the current CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP).  Frustrated by the failure of the 2002 compromise, CCAMLR has submitted a formal plea to the CITES Secretariat to encourage CITES parties involved in the harvest and/or trade of toothfish to adhere to their prior commitments.  In its submission, CCAMLR describes the history of blatant noncompliance with those commitments:

2. In November 2002, the CITES Conference of Parties (CoP12) adopted Resolution 12.4 on ‘Cooperation between CITES and the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources Regarding Trade in Toothfish’ and Decisions 12.57 to 12.59 regarding the trade in toothfish.

3. Pursuant to Resolution Conf. 12.4 and Decisions 12.57 and 12.59, Parties to CITES involved in the harvest and/or trade of toothfish are requested to cooperate with CCAMLR’s Catch Documentation Scheme (CDS) for Dissostichus spp. Parties were also requested to report on the implementation of the CDS to the CITES Secretariat and for the information to be communicated to CCAMLR (CCAMLR-XXII, 2003, paragraphs 14.1 and 14.2). This document is submitted in accordance with the abovementioned resolution and decisions.

4. To date, no information has been made available to CCAMLR by the CITES Secretariat pursuant Resolution Conf. 12.4 with regard to the international trade in toothfish.

While supporting CCAMLR’s attempt to rectify this situation, we don’t belive its proposal to the CITES Secretariat goes far enough.  The history described above leads to but one conclusion:  Listing under CITES is absolutely necessary to the long-term survival of toothfish.  The 2002 compromise failed to reign in nations involved in fishing and trading in toothfish.  CITES parties that are not parties to CCAMLR have been given a chance, and they have failed.  For the sake of the toothfish — and for the sake of CITES’ credibility — toothfish species should be proposed for listing at the next CITES CoP.  Sea Shepherd Legal intends to work hard to achieve this goal.

Please support our work at CoP17 with a tax-deductible donation.

Sea Shepherd Legal Lands in South Africa for CITES CoP 17

The Sea Shepherd Legal team has landed in Johannesburg, South Africa, as an official NGO observer of the 17th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (CoP) to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).  Over the next two weeks, we will be advocating for greater protection for endangered marine wildlife.  Along the way, we will be posting daily recaps, calls to action, and important developments.

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CITES is a global environmental treaty regulating international trade in endangered species.  While trade in elephant ivory and rhino horn grabs many of the headlines, CITES also plays a critical role in trade related to marine wildlife.

Unfortunately, marine species have often receive short shrift under CITES.  This is especially true for species targeted by commercial fisheries, as many parties have insisted that regional fisheries management organizations (RFMOs) serve as the proper vehicles for governance.

Yet, it is undisputed that CITES was designed to target trade in all threatened and endangered species.  The treaty makes no distinction between marine and terrestrial wildlife, and the presence of other governance instruments (like RFMOs) neither logically nor legally precludes CITES protection.

Building on the successes of the 16th CoP in Thailand — where the parties agreed to list five species of sharks and all species of manta rays in Appendix II  — Sea Shepherd Legal will be pushing for further listings for marine wildlife.

Proposals this year include the silky shark (Carcharhinus falciformis), thresher sharks (Alopias spp.), and devil rays (Mobula spp.), along with nautilus species (Nautilidae spp.) and two species of reef fish (Pterapogon kauderni and Holacanthus clarionensis).

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The silky shark is taken in large numbers in target and by-catch fisheries.  By 2013, the proportion of silky fins in the international market had increased to levels as high as 7.47%.

In addition to pushing for the adoption of these proposals — hardly a guaranteed outcome, unfortunately — we will be highlighting the key role of enforcement, including Sea Shepherd’s collaborative efforts with government forces to combat Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing, as well as to protect the critically endangered vaquita and totoaba, both of which are listed in CITES Appendix I.

Stay tuned to this blog for updates, and consider making a donation to support our work to leverage CITES in favor of marine wildlife.

 

International Criminal Court Places New Emphasis on Addressing Destruction of the Environment

In what may amount to be another tool in Sea Shepherd Legal’s arsenal, the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced on Thursday a new policy to prioritize crimes “that are committed by means of, or that result in, inter alia, the destruction of the environment, the illegal exploitation of natural resources or the illegal dispossession of land.”

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As the policy announcement makes clear, this shift does not create or expand the ICC’s jurisdiction.  The ICC is limited by its enabling treaty (the Rome Statute) to adjudication of four basic crimes:  genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and the crime of aggression.  Similarly, the ICC is only able to investigate and prosecute such crimes where the involved nations are unable or unwilling to do so.

Nevertheless, while this policy shift is necessarily limited by the four corners of the Rome Statute, the announcement signals an important move toward greater recognition of environmental crimes.  By assigning priority to Rome Statute crimes “that are committed by means of, or that result in, . . . the destruction of the environment, the illegal exploitation of natural resources or the illegal dispossession of land,” the ICC points in the direction of greater parity for crimes that impact the environment and wildlife.

For too long, the environment and wildlife have played second fiddle.  Although the ICC and the Rome Statute remain primarily focused on harm to humans, yesterday’s news shows at least a partial broadening of the ICC’s perspective.  It is about time.

Please consider making a donation to support Sea Shepherd Legal and our work to fight crime against marine species.

NMFS Adopts Sea Shepherd Legal’s Recommendation to Eliminate Exemption for “Highly Processed Fish Products” from MMPA Import Rule

Yesterday, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced a final rule implementing the import provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).  As we reported in a November 2015 blog post, Sea Shepherd Legal (SSL) submitted an extensive set of comments on the proposed rule.  Although the final rule leaves much to be desired, we are pleased to see that NMFS adopted at least one of our recommendations:  elimination of the proposed exemption for “highly processed fish products” (e.g., fish sauce and fish sticks).

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What you don’t see at the supermarket. Photo credit: AP/Wide World Photos.

Why does this matter?  To grasp the importance of this rule—and the significance of the elimination of the exemption for highly processed fish products—it is helpful to understand the purposes and history of the MMPA.

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In 1972, Congress passed the MMPA.  Just as it had with the Clean Water Act—also passed in 1972—the Congress of that era designed the MMPA to respond aggressively to the destruction of nature.  To that end, the MMPA prohibits the “taking” of marine mammals in U.S. waters and by U.S. nationals abroad, as well as trade in parts or products of marine mammals.  With a notable and lamentable exception—the killing of sea lions, ostensibly to protect endangered salmon runs—this moratorium has been a consistent bulwark against the intentional killing of marine mammals in U.S. waters or by U.S. nationals.

So far, so good.  But what about incidental killing and other forms of non-intentional take?  Does the MMPA contain any provisions addressing these problems?

Answer:  Yes.  When Congress enacted the MMPA, it recognized bycatch as a major threat to marine mammals.  Accordingly, Congress included language requiring U.S. fisheries to drastically reduce bycatch.

In addition, given the amount of foreign-caught seafood sold in the U.S., Congress included a provision requiring similar bycatch performance by foreign fisheries importing to the U.S.  Unfortunately, for want of implementing regulations, that provision has collected dust for over 40 years.

Now, finally, that provision will have some teeth.  The import rule announced yesterday will make significant progress toward reducing marine mammal bycacth associated with foreign-caught fish entering the U.S. market.

We are extremely disappointed by NMFS’ failure to incorporate several of our suggestions.  Without any convincing justification, NMFS has maintained a generous grace period for compliance, failed to incorporate a complete ban on fish from nations involved in the intentional killing of marine mammals (e.g., salmon from Scotland, where farmers intentionally kill pinnipeds), failed to adequately impose bycatch standards applicable to U.S. fisheries (e.g., the goal of reducing incidental mortality and serious injury of marine mammals to insignificant levels approaching zero), and maintained weak comparability standards.  Nevertheless, in our line of work, partial victories must be celebrated.

By heeding our suggestion to eliminate the exemption for highly processed fish products, NMFS has tacitly acknowledged that this exemption would have encoded a massive loophole.  The exemption would have allowed fisheries that supply the enormous market for things like fish sauce, fish paste, and fish sticks to be entirely free of bycatch requirements.  Failing to include these products would preserve importing fisheries’ ability to take marine mammals in large quantities, all while unfairly subsidizing fisheries specializing in these products.

As we explained to NMFS in our initial comments:

“[B]y failing to cover highly processed fish products (like fish sauce and fish sticks), the rule contains a gaping hole.  NMFS appears to believe that it would be too difficult to identify feedstock fisheries.  However, NMFS offers no facts to back up this hunch, and the agency’s position is contradicted by the rule’s proposed approach to intentional-kill fisheries.  If exporting and U.S. authorities are capable of distinguishing between salmon accompanied by intentional kills and salmon free of intentional kills, they should also be capable of policing the fisheries that feed into sauces and sticks.  In any case, nothing in the statute allows this exception.”

NMFS has responded as follows:

“NMFS is modifying the rule to remove language excluding highly processed products from the definition of fish and fish products.”

Yes, comments can make a difference.  While the final rule is far from ideal, we are pleased to have moved the needle in favor of greater protection for marine mammals around the globe.

Help support our work to improve the MMPA and other conservation laws by making a tax-deductible donation.

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For those interested in more details, here is how we framed the issue in our comments:

The proposed rule excludes from its reach “highly processed fish products” (fish oil, slurry, sauces, sticks, balls, cakes, pudding and other similar highly processed fish products).[1]  NMFS has made little effort to justify this exclusion, which is perhaps understandable:  The exclusion is at cross-purposes with the broader rule and the MMPA as a whole.

Highly processed fish products make up a significant share of the market.  Failing to include these products will preserve importing fisheries’ ability to take marine mammals in large quantities, all while unfairly subsidizing fisheries specializing in these products.  It would be incredibly difficult to justify this exception even in the face of explicit statutory authorization.  Here, NMFS is conjuring the exception out of thin air.  Not only is the exemption of highly-processed fish products unwise, it is statutorily impermissible.

To understand the imprudence of this exception, we must first grasp the size of the market for imports of highly-processed fish products. Fortunately, NMFS maintains telling statistics on these products.[2]  At just a glance, it is obvious that these products are big business.

For instance, in 2014, the U.S. imported over 20,000 metric tons of fish sticks with a value of nearly $100 million.[3]  As for “pastes and sauces,” foreign fisheries shipped in over 22,000 metric tons with a value north of $36 million.[4]  Imports of “fish balls, cakes, and puddings”—another category that NMFS proposes to exclude—weighed in at over 17,000 metric tons with a value of nearly $70 million.[5]

Not only do these products arrive in substantial quantities; their production wreaks havoc on marine mammals along the way.  It would be one thing, perhaps, if the involved fisheries were not associated with bycatch of marine mammals.  But that is just not the case—not by a long shot.

Fish sauce, for instance, is primarily made up of anchovies.   Global anchovy fisheries are associated with both high overall bycatch—grouped together by the FAO for statistical purposes, anchovies, herring, and sardines together yield over 1 million metric tons of annual bycatch[6]—and significant impact on marine mammals.  Anchovy fisheries off the coast of Argentina, for example, have been associated with bycatch of the dusky and common dolphin.[7]

Fish sticks tend to be made from groundfish species, primarily cod, pollock, and haddock.  Many techniques are employed to catch these fish, including gillnets and bottom trawls.  Although data is lacking, evidence from U.S. groundfish operations suggests that bycatch of marine mammals is a significant concern.  For instance, harbor porpoise kills in the Gulf of Maine sink gillnet fishery for groundfish have been alarmingly high—at least equal to and perhaps greater than the rate of replacement.[8]

Given the size of the market for highly processed fish products—and the correspondent impact on marine mammals—why has NMFS chosen to grant such a major exception?  According to NMFS, it is not really a choice but rather a matter of necessity.  The agency claims that these products “cannot be tracked back to one species of fish or a specific commercial fishing operation.”[9]  There are two problems with this statement: the premise and the conclusion.

Starting with the premise, why does it matter whether a product can be “tracked back to one species of fish or a specific commercial fishing operation”?  If two species of fish or several fishing operations feed into a certain brand of fish sauce, is NMFS suggesting that it would be inappropriate to regulate those fisheries because they are two or more rather than one?  That cannot be the case.  After all, the proposed rule as a default encompasses all fisheries and species.

Instead, NMFS seems to be suggesting that regulation is inappropriate because it would be too difficult to determine which fisheries or species—regardless of number—feed into a particular product.  What evidence has NMFS furnished to support this position?  None.  NMFS has not even cited data to suggest that these products tend to be an amalgam of several species and fisheries, let alone evidence to support the claim that it would be overly burdensome to untangle the production chain.

At the very least, NMFS must explain itself.  This explanation should include an analysis of the various regulatory options and the burdens associated with those options.  Unless NMFS can demonstrate that effective regulation would be practically impossible, it is under a statutory obligation to regulate these products.[10]  The MMPA commands NMFS to “ban the importation of commercial fish or products from fish which have been caught with commercial fishing technology which results in the incidental kill or incidental serious injury of ocean mammals in excess of United States standards.”[11]  Nothing in the statute authorizes NMFS to except certain fish products.  To the contrary, the statute is written as all-encompassing.

One obvious route would be for NMFS could to regulate imports of highly processed fish products by requiring the ultimate importer to report the feedstock fisheries.  This would shift much of the burden to the ultimate importer.  NMFS would obviously need to vet the proposed means of implementation and monitor the importer (or importing nation) for compliance, but this is always the case.

It is also worth noting that many highly-processed fish products tend to be higher in fat and cholesterol and lower in nutritional value.[12]  Many brands of fish sticks, for instance, contain trans fats.  By exempting these products from the rule’s scope, NMFS is giving them a regulatory advantage in the marketplace.  Yet, if anything, these products merit more regulation, not less.[13]

[1] 80 Fed. Reg. at 48,192 (col. 2) (setting forth language of proposed modification to 50 CFR 216.3).

[2] NOAA Fisheries, U.S. Foreign Trade, Commercial Fisheries Statistics, at http://www.st.nmfs.noaa.gov/commercial-fisheries/foreign-trade/.

[3] NOAA Fisheries, Imports and Exports of Fishery Products, Annual Summary, 2014, available at http://www.st.nmfs.noaa.gov/commercial-fisheries/foreign-trade/.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] FAO, Estimates of Global Fishery Bycatch and Discards, Table 6, available at http://www.fao.org/docrep/003/t4890e/t4890e03.htm.

[7] E.a. Crespo et al., “incidental catch of dolphins in mid-water trawls for southern anchovy off patagonia,” Journal of Cetacean Research and Management 2 (2000): 11-16; S.l. Dans, “incidental catch of dolphins in trawling fisheries off patagonia, argentina: Can populations persist?” Ecological Applications 13, no. 3 (2003): 754-762.

[8] Waring, G.T., Palka, D.L., Clapham, P.J., Swartz, S., Rossman, M.C., Cole, T.V.N., Bisack, K.D., and Hansen, L.J.  1999.  U.S. Atlantic Marine Mammal Stock Assessments – 1998. NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-NE-116: 151-159.

[9] 80 Fed. Reg. at 48,174 (col. 2).

[10] Abramowitz v. EPA, 832 F.2d 1071, 1079 (9th Cir. 1987) (“Although the Agency’s task may be difficult, it must nevertheless comply with its legislative mandate.”) (superseded by statute on other grounds).

[11] 16 U.S.C. 1371(a)(2).

[12] Id.

[13] In this regard, NMFS’ approach is at cross-purposes with the FDA’s push to exclude trans fats from the domestic marketplace.  FDA, The FDA Takes Steps to Remove Artificial Trans Fats in Processed Foods, at http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm451237.htm (June 16, 2015).