National seafood rule could prevent marine mammal deaths…if it’s not revoked

Co-authored by Erica Cirino

When fishers dip their nets, trawls, traps and hooks into the sea they often catch a lot more than the seafood they intended: All types of sea creatures, mostly fish but also marine mammals, are caught and killed in fishers’ gear. By some estimates, up to forty percent of what is hauled out of the sea each year is unintentionally caught “bycatch,” totaling 63 billion pounds.

This month the world’s largest seafood importer—the United States—is strengthening its seafood import policy with a new rule in an effort to reduce the impact of bycatch on global marine ecosystems. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is tasked with enacting this rule, which requires countries exporting seafood to the United States to prove their seafood was caught using approved commercial fishing technologies designed to prevent bycatch.

“By asking other countries to meet standards that are equivalent in effectiveness to U.S. standards (with respect to marine mammal bycatch in fisheries), rather than lowering U.S. standards to remain competitive in a global marketplace, this rule is good for U.S. fisherman and good for conservation,” says Rob Williams, marine mammal conservation biologist at University of Saint Andrews’ Sea Mammal Research Unit and author of a new paper evaluating the new rules.

Photo by Carl Safina. Trawling vessel pulling up its catch in the high Arctic.
Photo by Carl Safina. Trawling vessel pulling up its catch in the high Arctic.

In his paper, Williams and his co-authors argue the new rule has the potential to significantly diminish the present bycatch of marine mammals globally. They argue that the new rule regulating bycatch of marine mammals has the potential of “spilling over to other areas of marine governance.” Researchers say this rule will only help if other countries have the enforcement capacity to comply.

Exporting countries will have five years to develop a plan for complying and apply for a permit to ship fish to the U.S.

Williams and his co-authors point out that the success or failure of the new rule is reliant on the accuracy of exporting countries’ fisheries reports.

“If NOAA places the burden of proof too low, the rule may be meaningless,” says Williams. “If placed too high (e.g., requiring surveys, monitoring and mitigation programs that countries cannot afford), this rule may create an incentive for countries to simply shift their seafood markets to countries with lower environmental standards than the US.”

Despite a few possible snags in the new rule, fisheries experts largely agree if it’s implemented properly it will provide an overall benefit to ocean conservation. According to Elizabeth Brown-Hornsteinformer Safina Center Research Scientist and Sustainable Seafood Program Director, it’s an opportunity for the U.S. to “level the playing field” in bycatch policy worldwide.

“Countries that want to import seafood to the U.S. will need to monitor fisheries interactions with marine mammals and when needed, develop bycatch reduction plans,” says Brown-Hornstein. “It will provide benefits to marine mammal populations across the globe.”

Photo by Carl Safina. Dolphins off Montauk, New York.

With the new Trump administration promising to halt and defund many federal environmental programs, the fate of this new conservation rule is uncertain. It has great potential to prevent unnecessary marine mammal deaths if it’s not revoked.



Meet the Author
Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.