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Lawsuit Seeks Protections for Marine Mammals

California, August 14, 2002
(ENS) - A coalition of conservation groups has filed
suit in federal court against the National Marine Fisheries
Service, charging the agency with failing to protect
marine mammals from the effects of commercial fishing
operations. The groups say the agency must enforce the
federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, and take steps
to reduce marine mammal deaths.

This sea lion died after becoming entangled in a fishing net.
(Photo by R. Day, courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Turtle Island Restoration Network say the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) set an April 30, 2001 deadline for commercial fisheries to reduce incidental deaths and serious injury of all marine mammals to "insignificant levels approaching a zero mortality and serious injury rate."

But little progress was made by 2001 deadline, and in the lawsuit filed today, the coalition says the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the federal agency charged with enforcing the MMPA, has been falling down on the job.

"The recent beaching of dozens of whales off New England
shows just how important it is for the government to protect
marine mammals.

But, each year, hundreds of whales, dolphins and porpoises
are caught and drowned in fishing gear in U.S. waters,"
said Sylvia Liu, a senior attorney at Oceana.

"The Bush Administration must kick into high gear to
stop this needless killing."

(Photo courtesy Cetacean Bycatch Action Network)

This Irrawaddy dolphin died after becoming entangled with fishing gear. Fewer than 50 individuals of this species still live in waters off the Philippines.

Bycatch in commercial fisheries - the catching and killing of non-target species - is a worldwide crisis that needs to be addressed immediately, the coalition says. Fishing gear such as, longlines, gillnets and trawl nets can trap and drown marine mammals.
Some species, such as large whales, may not drown immediately, but often swim away with portions of gear or nets wrapped around them. This gear can cut into and become imbedded in the skin causing a number of debilitating and life threatening problems, which often result in a slow death.

Each year, more than 400 harbor porpoises, more than 400 common dolphins, and almost 250 pilot whales are killed by commercial fishing gear in U.S. waters.
New research released this month by the World Wildlife Fund finds that almost 60,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises are killed each year worldwide by commercial fishing practices. This is a figure three times greater than the deliberate killing of an average of 21,000 whales a year by whalers during the 20th century, a practice that caused severe declines in almost all large whale species.

A dead pilot whale on the deck of a fishing vessel.
(Photo courtesy National Marine Fisheries Service)

In 1972, Congress adopted the MMPA to protect marine mammal populations, many of which had declined due to fishing and other human activities. In 1994, the law was amended to require more aggressive steps to protect marine mammals from being captured and drowned in commercial fishing gears.

The lawsuit also calls on NMFS to issue to Congress a long overdue report, originally due April 30, 1998, detailing the progress all commercial fisheries have made towards reducing bycatch.

"NMFS has failed time and time again to meet congressionally set deadlines for taking actions designed to prevent the needless killing of marine mammals. As it has done with so many other environmental laws, this administration believes it can simply ignore the Marine Mammal Protection Act," stated Brendan Cummings, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. "We are confident the courts will hold otherwise."

Many whale species are still declining, despite an international ban on commercial whaling, because of losses to bycatch.
(Photo courtesy NOAA)