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Trump Administration Attacks Marine Mammal Protection

| Mark J. Palmer
Topics: Cetacean Habitat, Dolphins, Tuna Industry, Whales

In official government actions stemming from the opposition of President Donald Trump to government regulations, the Trump Administration has withdrawn pending regulations aimed at protecting marine mammals and sea turtles from drifting gill fishing nets, and proposed to zero fund the prestigious US Marine Mammal Commission.

One of the last uses of drift gill nets used in US waters -  the swordfish/shark fishery off of California’s coast  - uses drift gill nets that are notorious for their harmful bycatch. The nets, that can approach a mile in length, are set in the water and left there to catch fish that get hung up swimming through the mesh. By their design, gill nets are non-selective and entangle and drown a large number of different, non-target species. These large nets also entangle and kill large whales like endangered sperm and fin whales, and humpback whales.  Sea turtles are also susceptible to entanglement, with the huge endangered leatherback sea turtle a common victim. 

“Gill nets are devastating to marine life, and most gill nets have been banned in international waters due to action by the United Nations,” stated David Phillips, Executive Director of Earth Island Institute and Director of the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP).  “Earth Island has been in the forefront of opposing their use around the world.  For example, we strongly supported the UN ban and oppose use of any gill nets to catch tuna as part of our Dolphin Safe tuna standards.”

Proposed in 2015 by environmental groups and the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which regulates federal fisheries in California waters, the regulations would allow use of the nets, but if two or more endangered whales or sea turtles were killed, the fishery would be closed for up to two years.  Similarly, the fishery would close if any combination of four  short-finned pilot whales or bottlenose dolphins were observed killed. The US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) had promulgated the new rules to reduce the impacts. Just confirming that this is true? From reading these two articles:

NMFS claimed that the deaths of marine mammals and sea turtles have declined dramatically, but Todd Steiner, biologist and executive director of Turtle Island Restoration Network , noted that the fishery itself has declined, with very few gill net boats going out anymore. Furthermore, loses of just a few individuals of these imperiled species can be harmful given the declines in overall populations and the threats they face in the ocean.

“The Trump administration has just declared war on whales, dolphins and sea turtles off the California coast,” said Steiner.

Steiner added: “This will increase the pressure to completely close this archaic and barbaric fishery, that kills more marine mammals than all other observed West Coast fisheries combined."

The Turtle Island Restoration Network has written five reports on the impacts of this fishery, which can be read here.  

Meanwhile, the Trump Administration released its proposed federal budget, which included no funding at all for the US Marine Mammal Commission , a scientific advisory group set up by the US Marine Mammal Protection Act to review and offer advice to federal agencies and other bodies on the best practices to protect and preserve marine mammals.  Established with the passage of the MMPA in 1972, the Commission has repeatedly taken strong stances in support of marine mammals for almost half a century.

Senators Maria Cantwell (D-Washington State) and Cory Booker (D – New Jersey) have jointly submitted a letter to Senate Committees dealing with budget matters urging full funding of the US Marine Mammal Commission, with several additional Senators signing on.

“Earth Island and IMMP have strongly supported the work of the US Marine Mammal Commission,” stated David Phillips.  “They have been strong advocates for protection of marine mammals and finding solutions to human-caused threats marine mammals face in the world’s oceans.  The Commission should receive full funding from Congress.”

It is unfortunate that the ideology of the Trump Administration is now aimed at important protection programs for marine mammals and sea turtles. Experts fear there will be similar efforts to roll back protections for marine mammals, other wildlife, wild lands, and ocean waters under this Administration.


Photo credit Gabriel Barathieu.