Coming to Your Dinner Plate: Dolphin-and-Whale-Safe Seafood

After decades of delay, the U.S. will ban the import of fish caught in ways that harm marine mammals.
(Photo: Dave Fleetham/Getty Images)
Jan 7, 2015· 3 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

That tasty piece of tuna on your plate may well have been caught at the cost of the life of a dolphin or a whale.

About 90 percent of the seafood Americans eat is imported from countries that do not require fishing operators to avoid killing marine mammals trapped in their nets. An estimated 650,000 whales, dolphins, and other ocean animals perish each year as the bycatch of commercial fishing gear. Such equipment includes gill nets and long lines that stretch up to a mile, with hundreds of hooks baited with fish that marine mammals eat.

That could soon change.

The United States government has finally agreed to issue a warning to the roughly 122 nations that export seafood to this country: Catch your fish in a manner that doesn’t harm whale and dolphin populations, or you cannot sell those products in the U.S.

The government’s move was the result of a lawsuit filed last July by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Turtle Island Restoration Project. On Tuesday, the three groups announced that the government had agreed to settle the legal complaint, which was brought before the U.S. Court of International Trade in New York.

“The U.S. government agreed to adopt new rules that ensure seafood imported into the United States meets high standards for protecting whales and dolphins,” the groups said in a statement. “The long-delayed regulations will require foreign fisheries to meet the same marine mammal protection standards required of U.S. fishermen or be denied import privileges.”

Experts believe most countries will comply with the regulations.

“This market is very lucrative, so it’s not really in their interest to abandon it,” said Nina Young, foreign affairs specialist with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries. “I would hope they would do their best to reduce their bycatch. We’re certainly interested in working with countries to achieve that end.”

The Marine Mammal Protection Act, passed in 1972, was amended in 1994 to establish standards for how many marine mammals could be killed as bycatch by U.S. fisheries. Today, marine mammal bycatch must be a small fraction of the numbers needed by each species’ population to sustain growth, something known as the Potential Biological Removal level.

Although American fishers have been placed under the world’s strictest bycatch regulations, foreign fishers operate without such limitations.

Under the terms of the settlement, the National Marine Fisheries Service has until June 1 to propose rules on imported fish and fish products, requiring foreign fishers to adhere to the same restrictions imposed on U.S. operators. The agency must issue final regulations by Aug. 1, 2016.

“What this settlement says to the government is that you guys have completely ignored this provision for more than 40 years, and it’s time to actually start doing something about it and make the provision matter,” said Sarah Uhlemann, senior attorney and international program director of the Center for Biological Diversity.

The United States imports about $30 billion worth of seafood each year, much of it from China, India, and Latin America.

“There are places that don’t even track how many marine mammals are caught in their fishing gear, and they certainly don’t have the strong standards that the United States has,” Uhlemann said. “So I do anticipate that this is going to have a very wide-ranging effect on every nation that exports to the U.S.”

How will the new regulations be enforced?

Uhlemann said the process would likely be similar to that required by a federal law, passed in the 1980s, on the import of yellowfin tuna caught in the eastern Pacific.

“That law says the U.S. shall ban imports that don’t meet marine mammal protection standards and requires countries to provide reasonable assurance that their catch complies with U.S. standards, usually through a certification process,” Uhlemann said.

Young said the government shares that goal.

“We’re playing catch-up on the international front—we need to enact a proposed rule that will better reflect what we are asking our own fishermen to do,” Young said. “It’s a matter of leveling the playing field internationally. We have our fishermen, who are highly regulated, and now we’re asking our trading partners to step up as well.”

Why did it take so long for the government to agree to act?

“We deal with developed nations and undeveloped nations, and the complexion of the fisheries are very different,” Young said. “It goes from somebody who has a small net in a coastal village to large trawlers in the middle of the Pacific. So crafting something that’s fair to all those individuals is a daunting task. In some cases, countries are going to have to start over from scratch.”

Some conservationists said the United States has far to go before it complies with its own regulations.

“While it’s definitely positive to have foreign fisheries meet U.S. standards, it would be even better if we met them ourselves,” Regina Asmutis-Silvia, executive director of Whale and Dolphin Conservation North America, wrote in an email.

“Both critically endangered North Atlantic right whales and endangered Gulf of Maine humpback whales exceed their Potential Biological Removal level as a result gear entanglements,” Asmutis-Silvia said. “So yes, if foreign and U.S. fisheries met the standards set by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, we’d be in good shape.”