In the 1960s, Americans were shocked to see baby seals clubbed to death in the Arctic, whales impaled by harpoons from the bows of speeding ships and frantic dolphins drowning by the hundreds of thousands in huge tuna nets in the Pacific Ocean.
Congress responded to the public outcry in 1972 by enacting the Marine Mammal Protection Act to prohibit the killing, hunting, capturing and harassing of all marine mammals. This landmark legislation has resulted in progress. Dolphin deaths from tuna fishing in the eastern tropical Pacific dropped from about half a million per year before 1972 to about 4,000 per year today. Some whale populations once on the brink of extinction, like blue whales, are beginning to recover. And gray whales were recently removed from the federal endangered species list.
However, it's not all good news: Marine mammals are still in trouble. Although no longer commercially hunted in the United States, 60,000 whales, dolphins, porpoises and other marine mammals die each year worldwide as a result of a destructive fishing practice known as bycatch.
These gentle creatures are indiscriminately hooked on "longlines," entangled in nets and drowned by bottom-trawling gear. Bycatch also includes seabirds, endangered sea turtles and large numbers of fish species that are later discarded.
Bycatch, or wasted catch, results in millions of fish and marine mammals needlessly killed each year in the U.S.
This summer, more than 110,000 Americans supported the marine protection organization Oceana's petition demanding that the National Marine Fisheries Service implement a program to count, cap and control bycatch. This is the largest number of comments ever received by the government on an ocean issue.
In 1994, Congress renewed its concern over marine mammal bycatch by requiring the fisheries service to reduce the incidental taking of marine mammals in commercial fishing operations to "insignificant levels approaching zero mortality and serious injury" by April 30, 2001. Congress required the fisheries service to review and report back on the progress in meeting this goal by 1998.
The agency was also required to convene teams of scientists, fishermen and other interested parties to develop and implement plans to reduce deaths and to assist in the recovery of depleted populations of marine mammals harmed by commercial fisheries.
The federal government has simply fallen down on the job; it failed to meet these requirements. As a result, destructive fishing practices continue to kill large numbers of marine mammals off our coasts.
Longlines and trawling nets are drowning pilot whales and common dolphins in the North Atlantic. Harbor porpoise populations are suffering from shark and halibut trawl fishing in Central California and the Gulf of Maine. Fin whales and the gravely endangered North Atlantic right whale are on the brink of extinction because of ship strikes and entanglement in lobster gear and gillnets. And endangered humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine and the central North Pacific are being threatened by various fishing gear.
It is sad and all too common that the federal government must be sued to comply with its own laws to protect marine wildlife.
Oceana has, together with the Center for Biological Diversity and Turtle Island Restoration Network, filed a lawsuit to force the National Marine Fisheries Service to comply with the law and to protect marine mammals from commercial fishing. The lawsuit asks the service to convene teams to prepare plans to prevent the destruction and assist in the recovery of the most vulnerable marine mammal populations affected by fishing, and to submit to Congress the delinquent report on the progress in meeting the zero-mortality goal.
The stakes are high. We cannot afford to continue losing dolphins, whales, porpoises and other marine mammals. The Bush administration simply must do its job, and do it now.
Tim Eichenberg is a senior advisor for Oceana. He is an adjunct professor at Vermont Law School.