U.S. to World: You’d Better Protect Whales and Dolphins If You Want Us to Eat Your Seafood

New regulations could help save some of the 650,000 marine mammals caught in fishing gear every year.
Wild dolphins swim in the ocean near Mikura island, about 125 miles south of Tokyo. (Photo: Yuriko Nakao/Reuters)
Aug 12, 2015· 1 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

You’ve probably heard about dolphin-safe tuna. Well, how about dolphin-safe shrimp, whale-safe lobster, and porpoise-safe halibut?

Those don’t exist today, but they could soon become the norm thanks to new rules proposed this week by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

The proposed rules would require nations whose seafood and related products are imported to the United States to follow the same rules American fishers must follow to protect whales and dolphins under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. To do so, they would need to demonstrate that they have established conservation or regulatory programs designed to protect marine mammals. That might mean using new kinds of fishing gear or even closing off certain areas to fishing to protect imperiled species.

The U.S. imports about 90 percent of its seafood, half of which is wild-caught.

An analysis published by the Natural Resources Defense Council in 2014 estimated that 650,000 whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals are injured or die as bycatch in fishing gear every year. That’s enough to put many species at risk and push some toward extinction.

The new rules—which cover fish, mollusks (such as scallops), and crustaceans (such as shrimp and lobster)—could help to dramatically reduce that bycatch. The fisheries service called this “one of the most significant steps in the global conservation of marine mammals in decades.” It also said it would level the playing field for U.S. fishers who follow strict existing regulations.

All of this codifies standards that have been in place since 1972 but not implemented—except in the case of tuna—until now, said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, which with other conservation organizations petitioned the fisheries agency in 2008 to protect swordfish under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The process kicked off by that initial petition and a subsequent lawsuit filed by the environmental group culminated in this week’s proposed rules.

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Uhlemann said the new regulations could help save the world’s most endangered porpoise, Mexico’s vaquita. Only about 50 remain in the Gulf of California, down from about 200 in 2012. The main cause of the decline is shrimp gill nets, which too often catch vaquitas. (The nets are also used to catch another endangered species, a fish called the totoaba, whose bladder is sold for high prices in China as a delicacy.) With the new rules, “the U.S. could prohibit import of shrimp from this fishery,” she said.

Similarly, the lobster industry threatens the North Atlantic right whale, a species down to about 500 individuals. “Right whales are often entangled in lobster fishing gear off the U.S. East Coast,” Uhlemann said. “As a result, the U.S. requires its fishermen to meet tough regulations—gear modifications, closed areas, things like that. But Canada’s lobster fishery is subject to only voluntary measures. Under the regulations, the U.S. could sanction Canada for not having equally effective regulations.”

As with any proposed government regulations, the public and related industry may now submit comments on the rules. Comments are due by Nov. 6. A final regulation making the rules official is due Aug. 1, 2016.