My Turn: No flip-flopping on flipper

Posted: Monday, November 22, 2004

This week, the lame-duck Congress could be the scene of a sneak attack on a strong moral value felt across the land, a clear national consensus that's been enshrined in law for more than 30 years: That we Americans should do everything in our power to protect marine mammals - whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals - from being killed needlessly.

That consensus-which cuts across party, generational and socio-economic lines - is in danger of being tossed out the legislative window this week if leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives push through H.R. 5104, a bill championed by Congressmen Wayne Gilchrist, R-Md., and Richard Pombo, R-Calif.

H.R. 5104 punches a loophole in the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 that allows the commercial fishing industry to kill thousands more marine mammals than allowed under current law. The bill does this by removing a key deadline in the act to significantly reduce the number of marine mammals captured and killed each year in commercial fishing operations.

Rolling back these protections is unacceptable.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act came about for good reason: Every year, thousands of marine mammals and other sea life are accidentally caught by commercial fishermen using indiscriminate fishing gear, such as gillnets, trawl nets, and pelagic longlines. When sea mammals are caught by commercial hooks and nets, they are then tossed overboard, often injured, dying or dead.

This is a widely recognized problem of industrial fishing commonly called bycatch.

Bycatch of marine mammals affects most Americans on a personal, emotional level. Last March, for example, the country watched in horror as rescuers tried to free an endangered right whale dubbed Kingfisher - one of only 300 remaining in the North Atlantic - from an entanglement of fishing gear wrapped 20 times around its body. The 34-foot yearling was spotted off the Florida coast and was named Kingfisher after a Coast Guard cutter that first aided in the rescue effort. Rescuers finally gave up as Kingfisher panicked and swam farther out into choppy deep ocean waters. Marine scientists said Kingfisher would likely die as it grew and the fishing lines tightened around its body.

A fundamental requirement of the Marine Mammal Protection Act is for commercial fishing operations, working with the lead federal ocean agency - the National Marine Fisheries Service - to reduce the death and injury rate of marine mammals to insignificant levels.

Ten years ago, Congress set April 2001 as the deadline to meet this zero-mortality rate goal, but that deadline was not met. Rather than insisting that the Fisheries Service comply with the law, or even setting a new deadline, H.R. 5104 simply eliminates the deadline.

Deadlines work to make a federal agency take the law seriously. Without a deadline to achieve results, efforts to reduce marine mammal deaths will stall. And we can't afford to return to a time when it was OK to kill dolphins in tuna nets, and drown seals and sea lions in driftnets.

• Andrew Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana in Washington D.C.

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