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The Hidden Toll of Putting Seafood on American Tables

Foreign fishing operations kill or seriously injure 650,000 marine mammals every year, says new report

Ninety-one percent of the seafood consumed within the United States is imported from abroad, much of it wild-caught. Unfortunately for American seafood aficionados, our foreign caught crab, cod and tuna comes at a cost: A new report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimates that 650,000 whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals are killed or seriously injured every year due to lack of adequate bycatch regulations in foreign countries and lack of regulatory enforcement in the US.

Bycatch being thrown back into the oceanPhoto courtesy WWF DeutschlandGuitarfish, rays, and other bycatch are tossed from a shrimp boat in La Paz, Mexico. NRDC says the unintentional capture of animals in fishing gear is pushing some marine mammal populations to the brink of extinction.

Bycatch — mammals, seabirds, and fish which are caught in fishing nets and traps intended for other species — threatens whales, dolphins, and sea lions in the Northwest Atlantic, Southwest Atlantic, Northwest Pacific, Mediterranean, Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean and West Africa. Much of the bycatch is inadvertent, the result of fishing technology that entangles non-target species. However, some is intentional, including the release of gillnets on dolphins, which often swim above schools of tuna. 

The picture is different in the United States. For four decades, US fishermen have operated under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which, among other things, monitors and regulates bycatch in domestic waters. Under the MMPA, domestic fishermen have implemented new technologies that reduce bycatch, participated in monitoring programs, and faced steep fines and other penalties — including loss of fishing vessels and fishing licenses — for lack of compliance. Efforts under the MMPA have been successful. Marine mammal bycatch has been reduced by nearly 30 percent over the past 20 years in the US, and now represents less than one percent of the global problem.

Ostensibly, the MMPA requires foreign fisheries to demonstrate that their fishing technology meets US bycatch standards if their seafood is to be imported into the United States. The NRDC report argues that any seafood entering the US that does not meet such standards is being imported illegally. Unlike domestic bycatch requirements under the Act, however, this portion of the MMPA has never been enforced.

“Our domestic fishermen are under a very strong regime for reducing marine mammal bycatch in the United States,” says Zak Smith, an attorney with NRDC and co-author of the report. “They are not off the hook, and are constantly under pressure to get it right and bring down bycatch numbers. They have to invest a lot of money that their foreign competitors don’t have to.”

Acy Cooper, a seasoned fisherman and vice president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, agrees. “We work closely with NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] to make sure we are in compliance. By mandating us to have certain equipment in our nets… it raises our cost of catching shrimp and fish. [Foreign fishermen] can catch them for a lot cheaper, put them on our market, and drive our prices down.”

photoname Photo by scott e/FlickrShrimp and its bycatch —  juvenile Bagre marinus, menhaden, white trout, croaker,and
cutlassfish (belt fish).

Lack of enforcement under the MMPA with respect to foreign-caught fish also has implications for American consumers, leaving them with little reassurance that foreign-caught seafood is being caught sustainably. And third-party sustainable fishing certifications do little to help.

“Unfortunately, there are a whole bunch of fisheries’ certifications out there right now on these issues of sustainability, some of which in our opinion are very weak,” explains Mark Palmer, associate director of the International Marine Mammal Project, a project of Earth Island Institute. “And that’s a major problem because people think they’re getting sustainable fishing when they really aren’t.”

The release of the report coincides with a hint of momentum at the federal level, as NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service has begun to internally circulate regulations on the foreign fisheries component of the MMPA. Advocates are awaiting public release of the draft regulations. “We will be working in the coming months to really push that when the draft regulations come out, they reflect as much as possible our recommendations,” says Smith.

Although the report advocates using domestic law, as well as the power of the United States market, to stimulate change in foreign fisheries, the strategy is not without challenges. The federal government must begin by developing foreign bycatch standards, a daunting task given the wide range of fishing technologies and marine species involved. Once standards are developed, enforcement will pose an ongoing challenge. Furthermore, the World Trade Organization has a history of undermining conservation-based US trade regulations.

For these reasons, some advocates have doubts about the practicality of using the MMPA to influence foreign fishing practices. “There is a lot of opposition in Congress and in foreign countries to that approach, and the WTO is working to undermine that effort, so you’ve got some fairly major obstacles, particularly with the WTO,” explains Palmer. “The most effective strategy we’ve found is going directly to the public and conducting boycotts of fisheries that will put the onus on those companies and importers that bring the fish into the United States to do a better job.”

Smith agrees that Americans have a role to play as consumers and activists by demanding the right to make informed food choices. He, however, points out that the US already has a law on the books, not to mention a dominant presence in the international seafood market. “How can we extend our conservation goals internationally? Well, we can do that through the power of the US market,” he says.  


Zoe Loftus-Farren
Zoe Loftus-Farren is managing editor of Earth Island Journal. In addition to her work with the Journal, her writing has appeared in Civil Eats, Alternet,, and Truthout, among other outlets. She also holds a law degree from Berkeley Law, where she studied environmental law and policy.

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