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).
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.
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.
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). 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. 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. As for “pastes and sauces,” foreign fisheries shipped in over 22,000 metric tons with a value north of $36 million. 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.
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—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.
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.
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.” 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. 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.” 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. 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.
 80 Fed. Reg. at 48,192 (col. 2) (setting forth language of proposed modification to 50 CFR 216.3).
 NOAA Fisheries, U.S. Foreign Trade, Commercial Fisheries Statistics, at http://www.st.nmfs.noaa.gov/commercial-fisheries/foreign-trade/.
 NOAA Fisheries, Imports and Exports of Fishery Products, Annual Summary, 2014, available at http://www.st.nmfs.noaa.gov/commercial-fisheries/foreign-trade/.
 FAO, Estimates of Global Fishery Bycatch and Discards, Table 6, available at http://www.fao.org/docrep/003/t4890e/t4890e03.htm.
 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.
 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.
 80 Fed. Reg. at 48,174 (col. 2).
 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).
 16 U.S.C. 1371(a)(2).
 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).