International Marine Mammal Project

Bush administration declares war on whales

Earth Island News

International Marine Mammal Project

IMMP and Seaflow, Protect Our Living Oceans, have denounced a new effort in Congress by the Navy and the Bush administration to seriously weaken the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) supposedly for “national defense.” The MMPA protects whales and other marine mammals from harm, but the Bush administration is hiding extensive Navy exemptions from the law in the unrelated National Defense Authorization Act.

“The proposed Bush administration 2004 Defense Authorization Bill is the most egregious assault in history on the integrity of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and the world’s whales, dolphins and seals it protects,” says Mark J. Palmer, assistant director of IMMP.

Michael Stocker, bioacoustician and member of Seaflow’s board of directors, comments: “While the legislation has direct effects on marine mammals, the resulting Navy actions will also result in severe harm to fisheries, other marine life, and marine ecosystems. If Congress goes along with this proposal, Navy activities, including use of underwater explosives, loud active sonars, and other actions that harm marine life will no longer be restricted to protect the environment.”

The Navy proposes to gut the MMPA in four principal ways:

The proposed bill would weaken the definition of “harassment” of marine mammals in the MMPA;

The bill proposes a process for exempting actions of the Navy for “military training.” This “alternative track” for approving Navy training with Low Frequency Active (LFA) Sonar and other active sonars, as well as bombing practice and use of underwater explosives, will exempt the Navy against active enforcement of current MMPA restrictions for protection of marine mammals all over the Earth;

The proposed bill further allows the Secretary of Defense to grant the Navy exemptions for any activity with a “defense purpose” from provisions of the MMPA, and;

The proposed amendments would further eliminate current MMPA permit restrictions that limit take (any harassment, killing, injuring, etc.) of marine mammals to small numbers and limited geographic areas, issues that are the subject of current environmental lawsuits against the Navy’s active sonar program, including the controversial LFA Sonar.

The legislation is on a fast track in Congress. The National Defense Authorization Bill is intended to set budget levels for the Department of Defense in the coming fiscal year. But the Bush administration is trying to hijack this must-pass measure by placing anti-environmental riders, including attacks on the Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act, as well as the MMPA.

A similar effort in 2002 was defeated in Congress, but the Pentagon is banking on public fears about war and terrorism, along with a Republican majority in Congress, to gut environmental laws. The result, environmentalists contend, will be a global war on whales and other sensitive species that require protection.

“We strongly believe that our national security is dependent on healthy oceans to support us,” notes Palmer. “The military and the Bush administration are throwing away the future health of our oceans in search of minor convenience today.”

“If the Department of Defense is successful in gaining exemptions to environmental laws,” says Stocker, “we can be sure that industry groups and polluters will be asking Congress to exempt them as well. This is a zero-sum game that threatens 30 years of environmental progress in America.”

“Congress must stand up to the Bush administration’s war on whales,” concludes Palmer. “We cannot allow the Pentagon to use fear to stampede a wholesale repeal of the environmental laws that protect whales, dolphins, and seals.”

—Mark J. Palmer

Take action: Tell your Representative and Senators that national defense means protecting the nation’s environment, not destroying it, and that the military should not win additional exemption from environmental laws. Representative [name], House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515; Senator [name], Senate Office Building, Washington, DC 20510, or call the Capitol Switchboard (202) 224-3121 and ask to be connected to your representative’s and/or senator’s office.

Earth Island sues (again) to save dolphins
In December, Earth Island and eight other environmental and animal welfare groups filed a lawsuit against the Secretary of Commerce in San Francisco Federal Court, seeking to overturn the stealth decision by the Bush administration to weaken federal “Dolphin Safe” tuna label standards. EII is seeking a court order to permanently block the weakened tuna label and prevent thousands of cans of Mexican tuna, falsely labeled as “Dolphin Safe,” from flooding into the US.

The lawsuit was filed pro bono by attorneys Joshua Floum and Ariela St. Pierre of Holme Roberts & Owen in San Francisco. The government has agreed to a temporary stay of the implementation, safeguarding the strong “Dolphin Safe” label standards pending a hearing in early April for a preliminary injunction. Even so, trucks bearing dolphin-deadly tuna from Mexico reportedly rushed across the US border into Texas in January before the stay was implemented.

“We have been down this same road before in 1999 when the Administration tried to weaken the ‘Dolphin Safe’ label; that decision was struck down by the courts twice,” says St. Pierre. “We intend to use the same evidence and the same realities as before. There can be no doubt that deliberately chasing and netting dolphins, can cause harm, especially to baby dolphins. We expect the same result in this lawsuit—a victory for dolphins and for the environment, and a strong rebuke to officials who would promote trade in derogation of their statutory duties to protect our environment.”

Plaintiffs in the new dolphin case include EII, biologist Samuel LaBudde, The Humane Society of the United States, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), Defenders of Wildlife, International Wildlife Coalition, Animal Welfare Institute, Society for Animal Protective Legislation, Animal Fund, and the Oceanic Society. The lawsuit is aimed at the US Commerce Department and the National Marine Fisheries Service. The Mexican tuna industry has petitioned the court to join the case.

“The administration’s own scientists have shown that the fishing practice is a disaster for dolphins,” says David Phillips, director of EII’s International Marine Mammal Project. “This is no more than a political gift to Mexico at the expense of dolphin lives. With this new decision by the Bush administration, tuna fishing nations will deliberately target thousands of baby dolphins each year, leading to death from starvation and predators. We cannot allow that to occur.”

EII contends that the Commerce Secretary’s decision, which now allows a new weaker definition of “Dolphin Safe,” is arbitrary and capricious. The successful federal “Dolphin Safe” tuna program is being jeopardized by the government’s weakening of US dolphin protection laws to accommodate tuna millionaires in Mexico and other countries in the name of “free trade.”

Before the Secretary’s action, the “Dolphin Safe” label could not be used for any tuna caught by chasing and netting of dolphins. Tuna fishermen in the Eastern Tropical Pacific (ETP) deliberately target dolphins because tuna and dolphins form mixed schools, and dolphins are more visible from boats than are tuna. Since 1990 and the advent of the “Dolphin Safe” tuna program, dolphin deaths have decreased by 98 percent in the ETP.

US tuna fishermen no longer set nets on dolphins, and the major US tuna processors—StarKist, Bumble Bee, and Chicken of the Sea—have pledged they will not buy tuna caught by chasing and netting dolphins, regardless of the changed standards. The primary beneficiary of the Secretary’s decision is Mexico, though Venezuela, Colombia, and several other Latin American nations continue to chase and net dolphins to catch tuna. Of these countries, only Mexico has so far been certified by the Department of Commerce to import tuna.

“The American public deserves to know the truth about how tuna is caught,” Phillips says. “The Secretary’s decision is a fraud benefiting a small handful of Mexican tuna millionaires and drug lords, who can now import tuna to the US using a phony ‘Dolphin Safe’ label. All of the major US and European tuna processors have pledged not to buy or sell such tuna.”

—Mark J. Palmer

Four-strokes for whale folks
IMMP has joined four other organizations to launch an important program to help the fishermen and whalewatching guides of Baja California, while helping to clean up the main source of pollution in the Baja gray whale lagoons.

With our colleagues at EcoLogic Enterprise Ventures, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), and Wildcoast, Earth Island is sponsoring $144,000 in loans to local businesses to buy new four-stroke outboard motors.

The older two-stroke outboard models dump as much as a third of their fuel and oil directly back into the ocean during operation. They are loud, and they wear out. Four-stroke motors are cleaner, longer lasting, and cheaper to run. The loans will allow fishermen and whalewatching guides who have protected the wildlife and ocean resources of San Ignacio Lagoon and Punta Abrejos to realize immediate savings in fuel and oil costs, and will help further protect their local environment. As the loans are repaid by the fishermen, EII and our colleagues will provide new loans to additional fishermen in Baja to purchase the cleaner, quieter outboard motors.

It’s a good deal for the gray whales, who bear their young in San Ignacio Lagoon, and it is a good deal for dolphins, marine birds, lobsters, sea turtles, and a wide variety of fish species.

“A chronic lack of access to capital in Latin America has stunted the growth of business rooted in places like Laguna San Ignacio, where poor communities have a stake in protecting local habitats,” says William Foote, president and founder of EcoLogic. “Our objective is to use credit as a tool to harness the entrepreneurial energy that is already there in the field. We are delighted to be working with NRDC, IFAW, and EII to demonstrate the viability of these small-scale fishermen and whale-watching guides to local financial institutions.”

Last May, IMMP purchased a 200-hp four-stroke outboard for the staff patrol boat used for El Vizcaino Reserve, the largest wildlife refuge in Latin America. El Vizcaino Reserve encompasses San Ignacio Lagoon and Punta Abrejos.

EII thanks the people of Mexico for their support for long-term protection of whales, the Baja desert, and ocean wilderness.

—Mark J. Palmer

Latin American dolphin news
Nicaraguan Minister of Environment Jorge Salazar Cardenal confirmed in February that his government has indefinitely banned the use and exploitation of bottlenose dolphins.

Salazar says that this new law guarantees that in Nicaragua, dolphins will be fully protected. The ban comes after the World Society for the Protection of Animals’ successful rescue and rehabilitation of Bluefield and Nica, two bottlenose dolphins captured last August at Corn Island, Nicaragua, and released a month later.

As a result of a campaign promoted by WSPA Latin America and member society Amigos de los Animales in Panama, similar legislation is being considered at the Panamanian Congress as part of a new law on animal welfare that also includes a circus ban.

Meanwhile, in the Dominican Republic, a committee for the protection of dolphins has been created at Bayahibe, where representatives of the Manati Park marine show captured eight dolphins in 2002, sparking a global campaign of protest. A tourist boycott is still in place against hotels and tourism operators that cooperate with Manati Park.

—Ric O’Barry

Orca update
The campaign to save the Pacific Northwest’s southern resident orcas from extinction continues. Three years ago, IMMP initiated the Orca Recovery Campaign (ORCa) to halt the whales’ slide to extinction and enhance their prospects for recovery. Their numbers had declined 20 percent in five years. The causes of the decline are believed to be toxic contamination, lack of consistent food availability (salmon), and vessel traffic. Though there have been new births, the outlook is grim; these whales are described by scientists as among the most highly contaminated marine mammals in the world.

Since its inception, the campaign has educated and motivated thousands of people through brochures, conservation decals, a popular Web site (, numerous conferences, and stunning graphics on more than 200 billboards in Washington state. ORCa initiated a cooperative three-day Orca Recovery Conference, donated funds to non-invasive field research, contributed to the successful rescue of Springer the orphan orca, and fostered cooperation between environmental organizations.

ORCa continues to move the agenda forward to save southern resident orcas, recently recruiting the support of 19 environmental organizations to petition the State of Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to act to list the Southern Residents as endangered under state law. Not only did the state commit to the listing process (which should be completed by December 2003) but Governor Locke provided financing from his discretionary fund to make the listing possible. In addition, the $100,000 will be used by WDFW to participate in additional recovery efforts. Go to to thank him!

In the bad news, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) failed to list southern resident orcas under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as requested in a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity. NMFS responded with an inadequate designation of “Depleted” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The decline of the southern residents is caused by toxic waste and other factors not addressable under the MMPA; protection under ESA is needed to address habitat-related issues such as waterborne toxics. Earth Island has joined a lawsuit filed by the Center that would force NMFS to list the southern residents.

The work ahead includes pushing state and federal agencies to act, reminding people about the suffering of the orcas and mobilizing the public. We are now organizing a meeting of environmental groups to write a conservation plan and our own recovery plan while the lawsuit lives on in the courts.

—Will Anderson

Take action: Check out the Orca Recovery Campaign’s Web site:

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