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US to reduce bycatch associated with imported fish products

Since 1972, the US Marine Mammal Protection Act has (on paper) strictly banned the import of fish and fish products caught in fishing gear that kills or seriously injures marine mammals “in excess of United States standards.”

While the US federal agency, National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has implemented this long-standing provision for yellowfin tuna in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, no regulations currently govern import of other fish or fish products. Accordingly, last year, the Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Turtle Island Restoration Network filed suit and entered into a settlement with NMFS and other federal defendants, setting a deadline for a final rule implementing Section 101(a)(2) by August 2016. As a result, NMFS has now proposed rule implementing the Marine Mammal Protection Act’s (“MMPA”) fish import ban.

Alongside those conservation groups leading the charge, WDC has responded to this consultation. If fully and properly implemented, this rulemaking has the potential to save tens of thousands of whales, dolphins, seals, and other marine mammals from death and injury in fishing gear. Some key aspects include: (1) requiring nations to prove comparability (2) applying the ban on intentional take by fisheries, and (3) requiring compliance with the MMPA’s procedural standards, including submission of stock assessments and monitoring.

This has huge implication for how bycatch is assessed and imported into the US in future. It also makes requirements for monitoring trends in populations, to be able to understand the extent of bycatch.

Currently NMFS regularly track the status of marine mammal populations and bycatch from all U.S. fisheries and is obligated to reduce bycatch in U.S. fisheries (cumulatively) to the insignificance/approaching zero mortality standard. In addition, the MMPA requires all fishermen to report all marine mammal mortalities and injuries, which are defined broadly to include any animal that ingests fishing gear or is released with gear trailing its body, regardless of visible injury. Also, the MMPA requires NMFS to monitor and “obtain statistically reliable estimates” of bycatch, including placing observers onboard fishing vessels. Whilst similar measures are already mandated in some other parts of the world (for example, within the EU) they are not adequately implemented.

Perhaps most importantly for those of us in the rest of the world, whether our ‘fish products’ are imported to the US or not, this rulemaking also sets an important precedent.

Our goal is to ensure healthy fisheries that do not result in unintended and unnecessary bycatch of marine wildlife. Yet the simple truth is that bycatch in many parts of the world is unmonitored and likely grossly underestimated.

There is no doubt that we should be better labelling our food products – those that come from the sea as well as the land – so that we can transparently decide if the criteria for welfare and conservation match our own. Should we be selling fish products at all that endanger marine mammals, and threaten individuals and in some cases, populations or entire species (such as the North Atlantic right whale), particularly where management to reduce and prevent such wasteful bycatch are lacking?

It is an incredibly resource intensive undertaking to provide such information, which requires monitoring of marine mammals to understand populations trends, a detailed description of a countries fisheries, monitoring of bycatch levels and measures to continually reduce bycatch in the water. Yet this information is critical. It isn’t until all fish products are clearly (and truthfully) labelled, and all fisheries with bycatch adequately mitigated, that we can make informed choices at the fish counter.

So we commend the US for taking this important step to reduce bycatch and hope that it leads to transparency and reductions in bycatch in fisheries the world over.