NMFS Lists the Oceanic Whitetip Shark and Giant Manta Ray as “Threatened” Under the ESA

It is not often that we praise the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the federal agency in charge of oceanic fisheries and administration of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) with respect to marine species.  In this post, we give credit where it’s due — with a few very important caveats.

On January 22, NMFS issued a final rule listing the giant manta ray (Manta birostris) as “threatened” under the ESA.  NMFS rendered this decision in response to a November 2015 petition by Defenders of Wildlife (Defenders).  Sea Shepherd Legal lent its support to this petition by jointly filing comments with Defenders in April 2016.

One week after its decision on the giant manta ray, NMFS issued another final rule, this time listing the oceanic whitetip shark (Carcharinus lonigmanus) as “threatened.”  Once again, this decision was prompted by a petition from Defenders.  As with the giant manta ray, Sea Shepherd Legal was honored to join the fight, supporting Defenders’ comments providing new scientific evidence in favor of an ESA listing.

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The oceanic whitetip shark. Photo credit: Joe Romeiro (2010).

NMFS’ decisions to list the giant manta ray and oceanic whitetip mark important steps in favor of conservation.  As species listed under the ESA, the giant manta ray and oceanic whitetip will now enjoy new protections under U.S. law.  For instance, once a species is listed as “endangered” or “threatened,” the ESA prohibits federal actions that would “jeopardize” such species or “adversely modify” its critical habitat.  16 U.S.C. 1536(a)(2).  These protections build on those supplied through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).  The Conference of the Parties added both the giant manta ray and the oceanic whitetip to CITES Appendix II in 2013.

Nevertheless, we would be remiss not to mention the shortcomings of NMFS’ recent decisions.  First, NMFS’ rules do not, by themselves, prohibit “take” of the oceanic whitetip and giant manta ray.  “Take” is defined as the act of harassing, harming, pursuing, hunting, shooting, wounding, killing, trapping, capturing, or collecting, or attempting to engage in any such conduct.  16 U.S.C. 1532(19)).  In contrast to the situation with “endangered” species, the “take” prohibition does not apply to marine species listed as “threatened” unless protective regulations are issued under section 4(d) of the ESA (16 U.S.C. 1533(d)).  Thus, in the context of “threatened” marine species, the Secretary has discretion to decide whether, and to what extent, to extend the ESA’s “take” prohibition to such species.  The same goes for trade.  While it is unlawful to import, export, sell, or buy an “endangered” species, this is not automatically the case for “threatened” species.  Separate regulations are required.

In the case of the oceanic whitetip, NMFS stated that it is “not proposing such regulations at this time, but may consider potential protective regulations pursuant to section 4(d) for the oceanic whitetip in a future rulemaking.”  As for the giant manta ray, NMFS determined “that protective regulations pursuant to section 4(d) [including the ‘take’ and trade prohibitions] are not currently necessary and advisable for the conservation of the species.”

NMFS’ approach to “take” of giant manta rays is in considerable tension with the agency’s acknowledgment that “giant manta rays may be caught as bycatch in U.S. fisheries[.]”  Even if such bycatch has only “a minimal impact on the status of the giant manta ray,” NMFS errs in its casual dismissal of the conservation value of reducing bycatch.

Perhaps more importantly, international trade in shark and ray parts is one of the main drivers of population crashes.  In fact, NMFS candidly admits that “the main threat to the giant manta ray is the international mobulid gill plate trade.”  Similarly, with respect to the oceanic whitetip, NMFS frankly “disagree[d] that global regulations for . . . trade are adequate to control for the threat of overutilization via . . . the fin trade.” While the U.S. may not play a “significant” role in this trade, this hardly means that additional protections (on top of the incomplete protections under CITES) would be in vain.  To the contrary, U.S. leadership is desperately needed.

Additionally, NMFS declined to identify “critical habitat” for the oceanic whitetip and giant manta ray.  Section 4(a)(3)(a) of the ESA requires that, to the extent practicable and determinable, critical habitat be designated concurrently with the listing of a species.  According to NMFS, the presently available information is insufficient to make this determination for both species.  That claim is simply not convincing.  While data regarding oceanic whitetip populations and nursery sites is hardly complete, there is a range of scientific literature on the topic.  NMFS did not discuss any of this literature.  As for giant manta rays, NMFS summarily dismissed the idea of designating critical habitat in known aggregation sites under U.S. jurisdiction, including areas in Hawaii.

On the whole, NMFS’ decisions are steps in the right direction.  Still, much work remains to ensure adequate protections for the oceanic whitetip and giant manta ray.  In order to  make any significant progress in halting the devastating trade in shark fins and other shark products, the U.S. should institute a complete statutory ban on the buying and selling of shark parts, no matter the species.  Additionally, while certain federal and state laws prohibit the retention and sale of giant manta rays and their parts, they do not cover all persons, areas, and activities potentially subject to U.S. jurisdiction.  To truly ensure that the U.S. does not contribute to the decline of giant manta rays, our government should extend ESA protections to prohibit all take and trade.

 

 

 

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Sea Shepherd Teamwork Prompts Positive Response from Nigeria Against IUU Fishing

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Liberian Coast Guard ready to board the Star Shrimper XXV. Photo by Alejandra Gimeno/Sea Shepherd.

On March 13, 2017, the Liberian Coast Guard arrested the Nigerian-flagged Fishing Vessel (F/V) Star Shrimper XXV with the assistance of Sea Shepherd crew for committing several offenses (see article here). It was actively fishing without a Liberian fishing license, apprehended in an inshore exclusion zone (IEZ) reserved for local artisanal fishermen, and caught fishing without the mandatory Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) required of all “sustainably-certified” shrimp trawlers.

The Star Shrimper XXV is part of a fleet of ‘sustainably-certified’ fishing vessels owned by Atlantic Shrimpers Ltd that is licensed by the U.S. Department of State (DOS) to export shrimp to the United States. Certification requires vessels to use TEDs to reduce by-catch of turtles. Known as the “Section 609” certification process, this program extends TED requirements to vessels of nations importing shrimp to the United States.  TEDs are grates attached to the mouths of shrimp trawl nets that keep sea turtles and other marine life out of the nets.  Given that the United States is the world’s largest single importer of shrimp, the Section 609 program serves as a critical tool in the protection of sea turtles (and other marine life) around the world.

Following the arrest of the Star Shrimper XXV, Sea Shepherd Global worked with Sea Shepherd Legal to formally request that the DOS investigate “sustainable” shrimp fisheries in Nigeria (see article here). On December 20th, the DOS informed Sea Shepherd Legal that after being fined and subsequently released by Liberian authorities after more than a two-month detention, the Star Shrimper XXV was recalled to Nigeria, the vessel’s flag state under whose laws it’s registered.

According to information provided by the DOS, the government of Nigeria took immediate action against the Star Shrimper XXV, seizing the Star Shrimper XXV on arrival and holding it for three months while the vessel’s owner, Atlantic Shrimpers Limited, suspended the crew for 90 days and fired the captain and chief engineer.

For fishing without a license in Liberian waters, the Star Shrimper XXV was essentially suspended from fishing for six months, resulting in a strong deterrent for other vessels, while saving the lives of many sea turtles. Sea Shepherd commends the Government of Nigeria for taking its responsibilities as the flag state seriously.

“We are pleased that in the case of the Star Shrimper XXV, action was taken against the vessel by both Liberia and the flag state. Given that Atlantic Shrimpers Ltd is part of a massive fleet of 70 Nigerian shrimping vessels, we hope that this action will serve as a deterrent to future criminal activity”, said Peter Hammarstedt, Director of Campaigns for Sea Shepherd Global.

Sea Shepherd’s Partnerships to Stop Illegal Fishing

Since February 2017, under the name Operation Sola Stella, the marine conservation group Sea Shepherd has been assisting the Government of Liberia to tackle illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing by providing the use of Sea Shepherd’s civilian offshore patrol vessels and experienced crew, operating in Liberian waters under the direction of the Liberian Ministry of National Defense. The patrols have thus far resulted in the arrest of eight IUU fishing vessels. Developing countries are particularly vulnerable to IUU fishing, which accounts for up to 40% of the fish caught in West African waters.

In 2016 Sea Shepherd partnered with the government of Gabon for Operation Albacore, resulting in over 40 fishing vessel inspections at sea and the subsequent arrest of three IUU Congolese fishing trawlers and one Spanish long-liner. Operation Sola Stella is a continuation of Sea Shepherd Global’s commitment to work actively with national governments and their Law Enforcement Agencies in the fight against IUU fishing.

Sea Shepherd Legal Kicks Off Partnership with Peru, Leading Two-Day Training on Tackling IUU Fishing for Government Officials

On November 9th and 10th, Sea Shepherd Legal conducted an intensive workshop with key actors from the Peruvian government, including environmental prosecutors, Coast Guard captains, administrators from the Ministry of Environment, and customs officials, among others.

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Entitled “Prácticas de Vanguardia Contra la Pesca INDNR: Lecciones de Otras Jurisdicciones” (“Cutting-Edge Practices in the Fight Against IUU Fishing: Lessons from Other Jurisdictions”), Sea Shepherd Legal’s workshop addressed a broad range of topics related to combatting illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.

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Peru’s coastline, stretching some 1,500 kilometers, boasts biologically rich waters, with the cold Humboldt current in the south mixing with tropical waters in the north. Unfortunately, these waters attract significant amounts of illegal fishing — with both national and foreign vessels breaking the rules in a myriad of ways.

In addition to highlighting issues and problems specific to the Peruvian context, we spent considerable time examining novel approaches in foreign jurisdictions.  Using the comparative method enabled participants to approach the conundrum of IUU fishing from a fresh angle — and opened eyes to new solutions.

Specific topics included the following:

  • Marine Protected Areas (MPAs):  Avoiding “paper parks” by establishing MPAs with strong laws and enforcement plans
  • Monitoring, Control, and Surveillance (MCS) for the Twenty-First Century
  • Incentivizing Citizen Enforcement Efforts
  • Limiting Abuse in the Artisanal Sector
  • Targeting Non-Vessel Actors
  • Measures To Address Bycatch
  • Expanding the Portfolio of Offenses: Looking beyond the fisheries code
  • Facilitating the Work of the Prosecutor: Evidentiary presumptions and other legal reforms to eliminate barriers in IUU cases
  • Deterrent Penalties
  • The Power of Markets: Sanctions under market-based regimes in the U.S. and E.U.
  • Dealing with Irresponsible Flag States
  • Effective Implementation of the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA)

This workshop marks only the beginning of a long-term plan to work with Peru in the fight against IUU fishing.  Please consider supporting our work with Peru and other nations by making a tax-deductible donation.

Funding for this project was generously provided by the Waitt Foundation.

 

Sea Shepherd Legal Leads Discussion on IUU Fishing as Organized Crime at Convention of Prosecutors and Attorneys General

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The panel of experts at the opening ceremony of the Prosecutors and Attorneys General Convention in Peru

In early October 2017, scores of prosecutors and attorneys general from fourteen Latin American nations, five European nations, and the United States gathered in Lima, Peru. Under the title “Convention of Prosecutors and Attorneys General: Seeking Effective Mechanisms in the Fight Against Organized Crime and Corruption,” the attendees spent three days examining various forms of organized crime and articulating best practices to fight back.

In response to a formal invitation from Peru’s Attorney General, Sea Shepherd Legal led a lively discussion on Illegal Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) fishing as organized crime.  Specific topics included modus operandi, the various ways in which IUU fishing meets the common criteria associated with transnational organized crime, recent cases from Latin America (including the Fu Yuan Yu Leng 999 incident in Galapagos), and, most importantly, best practices for prosecutors working to counter IUU fishing.

Our basic message was simple:  IUU Fishing is serious, transnational organized crime. Government authorities need to respond accordingly.

What are the defining characteristics of “organized crime”?  

Does organized crime require the existence of a dedicated network of actors?  Crime for profit’s sake, as opposed to crimes of opportunity or crimes of passion?  Or perhaps we need a sufficiently “serious” racket (whether in terms of money or suffering) to distinguish “organized crime” from its petty brethren?  Is the existence of secondary offenses (e.g., tax evasion, money laundering) a necessary part of the formula?

When most people hear the term “organized crime,” they think of mafiosos breaking knee-caps in dark alleys, drug kingpins the calling shots from the comfort of their yachts — maybe even gun-runners smuggling arms across some far-flung border.  Alas, for most people, the lists ends there.  The popular conversation surrounding organized crime rarely reaches environmental offenses.  Yet, under any of the criteria suggested above, environmental crimes — including wildlife trafficking, illegal mining, illegal logging, and illegal fishing — are plainly the province of transnational organized crime.

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As the above graphic from a recent UNEP report demonstrates, environmental crimes rival and even eclipse many of their more “traditional” counterparts in terms of lucrativeness.  See C. Nellemann, The Environmental Crime Crisis – Threats to Sustainable Development from Illegal Exploitation and Trade in Wildlife and Forest Resources (UNEP 2014).

In the case of IUU fishing, these dollar amounts translate into enormous percentages of the overall trade.  According to even conservative estimates, IUU fishing accounts for up to 22% of total global production.  In some ports, one out of every two fish landed comes from an IUU operation.

Beyond sheer statistics, the realities of IUU fishing paint a grim picture — one of highly organized networks systematically raping the oceans, often with the use of violence, intimidation, and corruption.   Captains use forced labor and torture to keep crews in line; journalists are beaten and, in at least one case, murdered for investigating stories; fishing vessels are used to smuggle drugs and to engage in human trafficking.  In addition to this parade of horribles is the core harm to the oceans: millions of sharks, fish, and other marine animals taken unlawfully, and often under horrific circumstances, from the sea, every single year.

Compounding the problem, government actors have historically treated IUU fishing as a low-level offense.  Only recently has the conversation pivoted, slowly, to recognize IUU fishing as a form of transnational organized crime.  Sea Shepherd Legal is working to promote this paradigm shift.

 

RESIST: Standing Firm Against Trump’s Attacks on Marine Monuments and Sanctuaries

Donald Trump isn’t a big fan of laws.  Those annoying byproducts of democratic society get in the way of rule by fiat — or Twitter, as it were.  Donald Trump isn’t a big fan of the environment either.  Combining these two proclivities, Trump has charted a course to destroy the Environmental Protection Agency, to gut the Endangered Species Act, and to renounce any responsibility to take action on climate change.

Trump also has a discordant position on monuments:  If they are memorials to Confederate leaders, removing them is “so foolish!”  Yet, if the monuments set aside land, water, and oceans for conservation, Trump can’t wait to blast them out of existence.

Trump does not limit his plan to destroy or reduce conservation monuments to terrestrial parks like the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.  Rather, as a product of Trump’s Executive Order 13795, “Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy,” Trump seeks to “review” (i.e., reduce or eliminate) 11 National Marine Sanctuaries and Marine National Monuments designated or expanded since April 28, 2007.  The goal is, quite clearly, to open these spaces up for potential oil and gas operations.

Among the monuments and sanctuaries on the chopping block are the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument off Hawaii, Rose Atoll Marine National Monument off American Samoa, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary off California, and the Thunder Bay Marine Sanctuary off Michigan.

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Spinner dolphins in the lagoon at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.  Photo credit: Andy Collins/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Here at Sea Shepherd Legal, we are calling out this nonsense and fighting back in the name of conservation and the rule of law.

Our first step was to file comprehensive comments with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in opposition to Trump’s plan.  See SSL Comments on E.O. 13795 Review.   More steps will follow.  We will not go down without a fight.  To quote the former reality television star turned President, “It’s going to be beautiful.  Believe me.”  Despite Trump’s all-out-assault on the crown jewels of our national (and natural) heritage, we have good reason to be optimistic.  The results of a recent analysis demonstrated that, of the approximately 53,000 official comments submitted to NOAA on this topic, 99% were in favor of preserving our national monuments and sanctuaries.

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For those interested in some of the finer legal aspects of this issue, we encourage you to read our comments in full.  We also offer the following additional thoughts on how the President’s approach clashes with environmental and constitutional law.

The epitome of back-sliding

There is an emerging principle in global environmental law known as the principle of non-regression.  At its core, the non-regression principle stands for the common-sense proposition that environmental law should operate as one-way ratchet.  While lawmakers can and should improve environmental laws to meet new challenges, they should not use legislative power to roll back protections.  This principle “is based on the assumption that environmental law seeks to prevent the degradation of the environment by constantly improving environmental quality.”  Lia Helena Monteiro de Lima Demange,  The Principle of Resilience, 30 Pace Envtl. L. Rev. 695, 724 (2013).  While this principle may still be in its “embryonic” stage, as Brazilian Justice Antonio Benjamin phrases it, there is no question that this principle is urgently needed in the Anthropocene.  See Antonio Herman Benjamin, Environmental Courts and Tribunals: Improving Access to Justice and Protection of the Environment around the World, 29 Pace Envtl. L. Rev. 582, 589 (2012).

“Mr. Trump, the Framers called.  They suggest you take a look at the Constitution.”

In U.S. constitutional and administrative law, there is a far more familiar principle: that of limited executive authority.  Any power that the President has must arise from either an Act of Congress or the Constitution.  Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579, 585 (1952).  Although the President has authority to communicate his policy preferences to an executive agency, and agencies often have latitude to administer legislation, agency action is still confined by the boundaries of the law.  The President cannot simply undo the work of previous Administrations by saying, in effect, “There’s a new sheriff in town.”

As you read this, the Trump Administration is doing its best to smash both of these principles by laying the groundwork for erasing protections in 11 duly designated and/or expanded Marine National Monuments and National Marine Sanctuaries.

Please consider supporting our work to fight back by making a tax-deductible donation.

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.