Many of you are aware of the battles over the Endangered Species Act (ESA). You may or may not be aware of how this may affect whales and other marine mammals. Although we hope that alternative legislation may pass in both the House and the Senate, the bill that is currently under discussion is sponsored by Representatives Richard Pombo (R-Ca) and Don Young (R-Ak). This bill is roundly denounced by conservation organizations. One key change would allow the government to count captive animals in population censuses and encourage captive breeding, rather than habitat protection, as a way of restoring species. The bill would also create National Biological Diversity Reserves on public land to preserve habitat for endangered species; this would leave land that is not designated a "reserve" vulnerable to exploitation and habitat destruction. This bill requires the government to pay property owners for any impact that might reduce property value by 20 percent or more. It would also define "harm" so narrowly that animals cannot be harmed if they are not present; meaning that nesting habitat can be destroyed while birds are elsewhere during the winter. Among its provisions that would affect marine mammals:
Unfortunately, the ESA fight is not the only threat to marine mammals. Under strong lobbying from the tuna fishing industry, the tuna-dolphin legislation, which was brought about by strong public pressure, is under attack. Hearings are ongoing. The current bill (HR-2179) would repeal many of the MMPA protections for dolphins in the Eastern Tropical Pacific, defaulting to a non-binding regime of the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission (IATTC). It would lift restrictions on setting nets on dolphins, and would result in an increased kill of dolphins to a level several times higher than boats are currently killing. This bill, too, is potentially disastrous.
The MMPA was reauthorized in 1994, and is not due for discussion for several more years, however voices are being raised requesting its amendment. Fishers on the west coast and salmon aquaculture interests in Maine, are asking that it be reopened to allow intentional killing of seals and sea lions. Some legislators in Washington state support giving states greater "management authority" to reduce populations if they feel that it is appropriate to do so. No legislation has yet been introduced, but this situation is being carefully watched.
These attacks on legislation protecting marine mammals are but a symptom of a greater problem. "Save the Whales" is one of the best known slogans, and came about because of broad public support for these charismatic animals. If Congress is willing to attack protection for these animals, that are so loved by the American public, one can barely imagine the attacks on lesser known animals such as salamanders, fish and birds. Protecting whales is important, but they are only the most visible of the ambassadors for the rest of the animal kingdom, all of which deserve our protection.
© Copyright 1995, Cetacean Society International, Inc.