The hidden cost of seafood includes the deaths of thousands of marine mammals

Foreign overfishingThe popularity of wild-caught seafood continues to grow. But so too does the devastating cost to marine life.

According to The Killing of Marine Mammals in Foreign Fisheries, a report issued today by the Natural Resources Defense Council, more than 650,000 marine mammals are killed or seriously injured every year in foreign fisheries after being hooked, entangled or trapped in fishing gear.  Enforcement of a U.S. law to protect marine mammals could help prevent tens of thousands of these deaths.

The report finds that 91% of seafood consumed in the United States is imported and nearly every foreign fish product sold in the U.S. violates a federal marine mammal protection law. Wild-caught seafood most enjoyed by Americans – shrimp, tuna, crab, lobster, and salmon – present a particularly significant risk to marine mammals due to the dangerous fishing practices associated with them abroad.

“No one wants their shrimp cocktail to come with a side of dolphin, but that’s essentially what’s happening when we eat imported fish that isn’t held to the same standard as American seafood,” said Zak Smith, NRDC attorney and co-author of the report. “For 40 years, federal watchdogs have failed to enforce a law that could save thousands of whales and dolphins from negligent foreign fishing practices. At the same time, well-meaning U.S. fishermen are being undermined by their own government, which holds them accountable, but not their foreign counterparts.”

The closed circle of purse seines allow larger marine mammals in but not out

The closed circle of purse seines allow larger marine mammals in but not out

This report examines the failure of the U.S. government to enforce protections under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which requires countries exporting fish products to prove the fish were not caught in violation of U.S. standards that limit serious injury and death of marine mammals. The unintentional capture of animals in fishing gear, or bycatch, is pushing some marine mammal populations to the brink of extinction.

Species most affected by seafood exports for American markets:

  • North Atlantic right whale: at risk from Canada’s lobster and crabbing practices
  • New Zealand sea lion: at risk from New Zealand’s squid industry
  • Mediterranean sperm whale: at risk from Italy & Turkey’s lack of enforcement
  • Vaquita: at risk from shrimp fisheries not complying with Mexico’s regulations
  • Spinner dolphins: at risk from India and Sri Lanka’s tuna industry
  • Baltic and Black Sea harbor porpoises: at risk from inadequate regulatory measures
  • J-Stock minke whale: at risk from a range of Japanese and South Korean fishing practices
  • False killer whale: at risk from Pacific Ocean tuna, swordfish and marlin fishing practices

There are a variety of key types of fishing gear that threaten marine mammals around the world. These include:

  • Gillnets: mesh nets that can be set on the sea floor or floated in the water column depending on the targeted species. Marine mammals that dive for food around gillnets tend to become entangled and drown when they are unable to surface for air.
  • Purse seines: nets that hang vertically in the water column using weights at the bottom and buoys at the top. They can enclose marine mammals in the nets, along with fish.
  • Trawls: funnel-shaped nets that are dragged behind boats at different depths, depending on target species. Marine mammals are attracted to trawls, which they become entangled in, because they often target the species that mammals prey upon.
  • Bottom-set traps: (commonly called “pots”) crustacean traps with ropes that connect them to surface buoys and to one another. Large whales are particularly prone to getting entangled in the ropes, which wrap around their bodies, making it difficult for them to move or feed.
  • Longlines: baited hooks on lines varying in length from 15 to 100 kilometers set with floating buoys or sunk with weights depending on the targeted species. Sea lions, fur seals, toothed whales, and other marine mammals can get caught on the hooks or tangled in the lines.
Gill nets too often ensnare marine mammals, leading to their deaths

Gill nets too often ensnare marine mammals, leading to their deaths

There are, however, a number of safer targeted methods that can be used to reduce the risk and harm to marine mammals. These include time and area exclusions, warning systems, and gear modifications that make escaping entanglement more likely. In 1994 an aggressive, science-based plan was adopted by the U.S. that, over 20 years, has reduced marine mammal bycatch by nearly 30% and put special measures in place to save populations at highest risk.

“In many parts of the world, poor fishing practices are driving populations and species of marine mammals to extinction,” said Dr. Andrew J. Read, Stephen Toth Professor of Marine Biology, Division of Marine Science & Conservation, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University. Most Americans would be shocked to learn of the hundreds of thousands of whales, dolphins, and porpoises killed each year in bringing wild seafood to our tables,” he said.

Until the U.S. enforces the law, consumers can also play a role in protecting marine mammals by purchasing American-caught seafood that abides by U.S. safety standards. Federal law requires seafood be clearly marked with the country of origin, but consumers should also ask the retailer, restaurant and producer for more information about where the fish was caught.

It’s a case of being an educated consumer – and voting with your hard-earned dollars to make a real difference.

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