If you serve seafood in your restaurant, do you really know where and how it was caught? According to the Natural Resources Defense Council NRDC, U.S. federal law requires seafood be clearly marked with the country of origin, but one should also ask for information about where the fish was caught. Why? According to a new report released by NRDC, 91 percent of seafood consumed in the United States is imported and nearly every foreign fish product sold in the United States violates a federal marine mammal protection law. Also, the report says, 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. Those harmful practices could stop if the U.S. government would just enforce protections under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The protections require 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.
According to the NRDC report, Net Loss: The Killing of Marine Mammals in Foreign Fisheries, the 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. The unintentional capture of animals in fishing gear, or bycatch, is pushing some marine mammal populations to the brink of extinction. Some of the species most at risk include the North Atlantic right whale, the New Zealand sea lion, the Mediterranean sperm whale, Spinner dolphins, and the J-Stock minke whale. Certain types of fishing gear—gillnets, purse seines, and trawls, for example—put some species especially at risk.
According to the report, there are smart and targeted methods that can be employed to reduce risk and harm to marine mammals from dangerous gear, including time and area exclusions, warning systems, and gear modifications that make escaping entanglement more likely. An aggressive, science-based plan adopted by the United States in 1994 has reduced marine mammal bycatch by nearly 30 percent over 20 years and put special measures in place to save populations at highest risk.
For other countries to take action, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the federal agency with jurisdiction over the interpretation and enforcement of the MMPA, needs to hold other nations to the same bycatch standards. These include requiring all imported fish or fish products be accompanied by information on the status of affected marine mammal populations, proof that protective measures were utilized, and proof that fisheries were monitored for their compliance and are working towards a goal of zero marine mammal deaths.
The report concludes, “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. It is critical to identify wild-caught seafood as American.”