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Lawsuit Seeks Protections for Marine Mammals

While the MMPA calls for the reduction of all marine mammal bycatch, certain high risk populations are subject to special protections including the development of "take reduction plans." These plans, developed by teams of experts, are required to be implemented within 20 months of a scientific assessment concluding that populations are threatened by commercial fishing.

Well designed take reduction plans can help rebuild these
at risk populations. To date, however, the agency has only
convened six teams and completed four take reduction plans.

"To date, NMFS has failed to develop many of the take
reduction plans that are warranted by scientific assessments,"
said Todd Steiner, director of the Turtle Island Restoration
Network. "Our lawsuit calls upon NMFS to complete take
reduction plans for strategic stocks that the agency itself
has identified as being threatened by commercial fishing."

Three of the key populations that are the focus of the lawsuit
are the harbor porpoises off of Central California, the
common dolphins in the Western North Atlantic, and long
finned and short finned pilot whales in the Western North

A gillnetter sets a net off the coast of Alaska.
(Photo courtesy National Marine Fisheries Service)

Gillnets, among the most widespread of fishing gear, are believed to be responsible for much of the world's marine mammal bycatch. Many experts argue that wherever there are gillnets, there is bycatch.

This summer, more than 110,000 Americans supported a petition circulated by Oceana, demanding that NMFS implement a program to count, cap, and control wasted catch, the largest number ever to comment formally on an ocean related issue. The fisheries responsible for such killings use longlines, gillnets and trawl nets - fishing techniques that kill large numbers of non-targeted ocean life.

At the regional meeting of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy last month, a coalition of cetacean scientists recommended a number of techniques that could be used to reduce bycatch of marine mammals.

Solutions to the problem of entanglement vary by region and species involved, but can include adding gillnet floats that break away when hit by a whale, acoustic "pingers" that warn marine mammals away from nets and buoy lines that are less likely to snare whales and dolphins.

Setting nets in deeper water, an inexpensive and simple strategy, can also help to reduce bycatch in some cases. Commercial fishers have been crucial in developing these successful gear modifications, the scientists noted.

More information about the lawsuit is available at: or: