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).

Brazilian Prosecutors Fight to Save the Guiana Dolphin

The Guiana dolphin (Sotalia guianensis), or “boto-cinza” in Portuguese, is a symbol of Rio de Janeiro — literally.  The city flag features a pair of red, stylized Guiana dolphins cradling Rio’s coat of arms.

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Rio’s flag. Credit: Google Images.

 

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Guiana dolphins (a.k.a. boto-cinza). Credit: Google Images.

Federal prosecutors in Brazil are fighting to make sure this species remains more than just an image on a flag.  Like so many cetaceans, the Guiana dolphin is under siege from multiple angles, absorbing attacks from overfishing (depleting the dolphins’ source of food), by-catch, and habitat modification.  The coastal Guiana dolphin (there is also a freshwater variant) is listed in Appendix II of the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS).  Its listing in Appendix II signifies that it has an unfavourable conservation status and would benefit significantly from international co-operation.  This determination is echoed in Brazlian wildlife law, where the dolphin is listed as “vulnerable.”

On February 10, the Brazilian federal prosecutors’ office (Federal Prosecution Service or Ministério Público Federal, in Portuguese) issued a document detailing the critical state of affairs and requesting immediate action by public and private actors.

In coordination with the prosecutors’ office, Sea Shepherd Legal has agreed to disseminate this document and its central message:  Absent significant and rapid change, the Guiana dolphin could well disappear from the Baia de Sepetiba/Ilha Grande region in southern Rio de Janeiro.  (Scroll to the bottom of this post for a link to the document, in Portuguese.)

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Map of the state of Rio de Janeiro, with Baia de Sepetiba/Ilha Grande in the lower left-hand corner, near the border with Sao Paulo. Credit: Google Images.

The highest number of Guiana dolphins registered in Brazil — and in the world — is found between the cities of Itaguai, Mangaratiba, and Angra dos Reis, all three of which hug the Baia de Sepetiba.

Yet, as the Ministério Público Federal explains, the Guiana dolphins in Baia de Sepetiba/Ilha Grande have been decimated in recent years.   In 2002/2003, a population study identified approximately 1,300 individuals.  Today, there are fewer than 800   That’s a drop of roughly 40% in just over a decade.

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Percentage of carcasses recovered in Baia de Sepetiba, by year (2005-2015).                      Credit: Instituto Boto Cinza.

 

Why is the local population crashing?  The causes are manifold.  Here are a few of the more important factors (per the Ministério Público Federal):

  • Overfishing of prey species
  • Incidental capture (by both commercial and artisanal fishermen)
  • Pollution
  • Decreased habitat
  • Increased boat traffic
  • Port development
  • Other industrial and urban development in coastal regions

The combined harm from all these sources has produced a scenario where the Guiana dolphin may be entirely wiped out from Baia de Sepetiba/Ilha Grande — and all of Rio state — in ten years’ time.

As this list of factors suggests, this truly is a “death by a thousand cuts” scenario for the dolphins.  But some cuts go deeper than others — and, perhaps ironically, some of the deepest cuts also seem to be the most preventable.  For instance, the federal government plans to double the size of the channel that runs through the heart of the dolphins’ habitat in Baia de Sepetiba.  Vessel traffic will double from approximately 1,800 vessels per year to 3,600 vessels per year.  The vessel traffic displaces dolphins, which then die in fishing nets.  The noise interferes with echolocation.  And this is to say nothing of the harm produced by dredging and explosions associated with the project in the first instance.

As bad as that is, the harm is compounded by the activities of artisanal, commercial, and illegal fishing operations, mainly targeting tuna.  The increased vessel traffic through the channel is displacing dolphins and fisherman, corralling them into a smaller region.  This has resulted in increased human-dolphin interactions and extremely high by-catch and mortality.

What’s more, according to the federal prosecutors’ office, fisheries enforcement in the Baia de Sepetiba/Ilha Grande region is “practically zero.”  Even if the vessel traffic remained constant, effective fisheries enforcement could at least reduce by-catch by limiting illegal fishing, fishing with prohibited gear, and so forth.  As is, the token enforcement efforts have not reduced dolphin mortality one bit.

Besides all this, there are slews of vessels that anchor right in the middle of the dolphins’ favored areas of concentration. This is yet one more controllable factor that is displacing the dolphins toward fishing nets, toward death.

All this bad news notwithstanding, there is reason for hope.  The federal prosecutors’ office has made this issue a priority and is putting pressure on the major players — public and private alike — to avert disaster.  Among other measures, the prosecutors’ office is calling for:

(1) The creation of a coalition police force to monitor and respond to illegal and excessive fishing, with mandatory patrols in the bay every week.

(2) The preparation of a technical study by the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) to verify the need for changes in fishing practices and regulations in the Baia de Sepetiba/Ilha Grande region.

(3) The formation of a new group under the auspices of the State Environmental Institute (INEA) — the primary body involved in project licensing in the bay — with the task of reassessing mitigation measures to improve conditions for conservation.  To add credibility to this group, the federal prosecutors have requested the participation of the Instituto Boto Cinza.

(4) The creation of a new plan by INEA to promote community-based tourism as an alternative source of income for local fishermen.

(5) The immediate cessation of any additional licensing by INEA that could cause harm to the dolphins and their habitat, pending additional scientific study.

(6) The prohibition, by the port authority in Rio de Janeiro, of anchoring in the dolphins’ favored areas of concentration.

The prosecutors’ office has given the relevant public authorities 10 days to respond to its report and recommendations for policy changes.  We will be following the story and will keep our readers abreast of important developments.

In closing, we congratulate the Ministério Público Federal for its brave and important efforts to save these beautiful creatures.   Sea Shepherd Legal looks forward to assisting this campaign in any way it can.  Keep up the good fight!

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Link to document from Brazil’s Ministério Público Federal: Recomendação 5-2016 – diversas autoridades – Boto-Cinza – IC 153-2014-17

From Panama to the Netherlands – Sea Shepherd Legal on the Global Campaign Trail

Sea Shepherd Legal spent the past month on the campaign trail forging relationships with officials globally to protect marine wildlife and habitats.  These in-person meetings set the stage for a great start to 2016.  Here are a few of the highlights:

RESOUNDING SUCCESS IN PANAMA

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In November, SSL arrived in Panama for the Seventh Annual Congress of the Red Latinoamericana de Ministerio Público Ambiental (Latin American Environmental Prosecutors’ Network, or “the Red”).  The Red is a forum through which 300+ state and federal environmental prosecutors across Latin America share ideas and collaborate regarding effective methods to combat environmental crimes ranging from illegal logging to wildlife trafficking.

SSL’s goal in attending was to highlight the plight of the oceans and the critical need to develop and enforce marine protective laws throughout the region.  We received an overwhelmingly positive response, reflected in (1) an official declaration stating that Red is dedicated to working with SSL; and (2) the establishment of a marine subcommittee to help facilitate immediate and active collaboration between Red and SSL.

COALITION-BUILDING IN STRASBOURG, FRANCE

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SSL participated as an official observer at the annual meeting of the Standing Committee to the Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (the Bern Convention).  The meeting was held at the Council of Europe’s Palais de l’Europe in Strasbourg.

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Attending this meeting was key to SSL’s effort to leverage the Bern Convention to protect pilot whales and other small cetaceans.  These creatures are being brutally slaughtered each year in the Faroe Islands, a self-governing overseas administrative division of Denmark.  Pilot whales are listed in Appendix II of the Bern Convention.  As such, state parties, like Denmark, are required to heed the Convention’s prohibition against “all forms of . . . deliberate killing.”

Although Denmark entered a reservation to except the Faroes from the Convention’s reach, it is SSL’s position that the slaughter in the Faroes is nevertheless illegal.  Without a doubt, Denmark’s participation in the slaughter most certainly violates the Convention.  Toward that end, SSL met with representatives of multiple European Union member states and other Standing Committee members, garnering support for an action against Denmark.

KEEPING OCEANS ON THE COP 21 AGENDA IN PARIS

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Following the meeting in Strasbourg, SSL headed west to attend Oceans Day and other events at COP 21 in Paris.  We were both pleased and disappointed by what we experienced.

The primary event we attended was Oceans Day – a forum designed “to advance the oceans and climate change agenda at COP 21 and beyond.”  We listened to multiple world leaders speak about how climate change impacts our oceans, livelihoods and small island states.  Some leaders, including the Prince of Monaco and President of Palau, provided examples of efforts underway to mitigate these impacts.  We were pleased by the awareness, but were disappointed by the following glaring incongruities:

Talking the talk, but not walking the walk  .  .  .

Again, this was the OCEANS DAY forum.  So, what are some of the biggest threats to ocean health?  Climate change, overfishing, and plastics pollution.  Yet, what did the event organizers serve to the participants?

  • Plastic water bottles and plastic cups!  Not only does the production of plastic exacerbate global warming, but a huge amount of plastics from water bottles end up in our oceans.  With 200+ attendees at Ocean Day (not to mention the 40,000+ attendees at COP 21 as a whole, who also were served plastic), just imagine the potential impact.

 plastic at cop21

Stats at a glance: Meeting the annual demand for bottled water in the United States alone requires more than 17 million barrels of oil annually, enough to fuel 1.3 million cars for a year.  Less than ¼ of plastic water bottles are ever recycled.  Notably, the recycling process also produces greenhouse gases. Why use them?  Why serve them?    

  • Fish and chips!   This is not a joke.  Fish and chips were top menu items for purchase at the Oceans Day event.  It seems obvious that If we want to protect our oceans, we need to decrease demand.  Decreasing demand on our oceans was never mentioned at the Oceans Day event.

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Stats at a glance: Marine fisheries are collapsing around the world.  Approximately 85% of global fish stocks are over-exploited, depleted, fully exploited, or in recovery from exploitation.  Scientists warn that we may be the last generation to harvest wild-caught fish in significant numbers. Despite these trends, global demand for fish continues to rise, with per-capita consumption now four times higher than it was in 1950.

  • Hamburgers and sliced meats!  Hamburgers were one of the first things to sell out at the Ocean’s Day café, while complimentary samplings of salami and other sliced meats were passed around to registered participants (to go along with wine served in plastic cups).  Surely, everyone knows by now that the production of livestock contributes significantly to climate change. 

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Stats at a glace: It is estimated that animal agriculture is responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, more than the combined exhaust from all transportation.  Cows produce 150 billion gallons of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – per day.  Emissions from agriculture are projected to increase 80% by 2050.

SSL commends the organizers of COP 21 for focusing an entire day on oceans, and for using sustainable products in some aspects of the Paris climate summit.  In the future, we hope to work with organizers to ensure that events we attend are planned in a mindful manner that lessens the impact on marine wildlife and environments.

Oceans- Deserving of a full-day forum, yet merely a passing thought in the final climate agreement 

At COP 21, SSL pushed for due respect for oceans in the new climate agreement.  The agreement took on multiple iterations throughout its development – many of which failed to even include the word “oceans.”  This despite the fact that the world’s oceans provide 50% of our oxygen and absorb 1/3 of our CO2 emissions.  Concerned about the progress of the agreement, SSL circulated an emergency petition to ensure that oceans remain a focus of the landmark agreement.

Ultimately, the word “oceans” at least made it in the preamble, where the Parties “not[ed] the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, including oceans, . . . when taking action to address climate change[.]”

As a colleague reminds us, “the word game is the long game.”  Even if oceans are not included in the operative provisions of the agreement, the preambular language is meaningful and pregnant with potential.  SSL will do everything it can to make the most of this clause.

COLLABORATING WITH OUR SEA SHEPHERD COMRADES IN THE NETHERLANDS

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Our trip would not have been complete without a campaign trail stop at the Sea Shepherd Global headquarters in Amsterdam.  SSL is dedicated to upholding the overarching mission of Sea Shepherd to “end the destruction of habitat and slaughter of wildlife in the world’s oceans in order to conserve and protect ecosystems and species.”

SSL is developing multiple legal campaigns that complement the amazing work of the superheroes at Sea Shepherd Global.  Together, we look forward to a strong and successful 2016!   Stay tuned for future blogs and publications.

Please donate to support our work to protect marine wildlife and ecosystems – visit our secure donation link at www.seashepherdlegal.org.