Have you ever heard of a Vaquita [Ve-key-ta]? The majority have not. Discovered in 1958, there are only about 30 of these porpoises left in the world. Fishing operations within Mexico’s Gulf of California have drastically reduced their population, leading to their status as critically endangered. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has categorized the Vaquita as high-risk for extinction.
This is just one example of a marine species that has declined rapidly; this phenomenon is widespread, and the Vaquita is joined by the Blue Whale, Steller Sea Lion, and Hawaiian Monk Seal as endangered due to harmful fishing habits as well.
There has been a large increase in animals listed as critically endangered throughout the past 16 years. As of 2014, there are 2,464 animal and 2,104 plant species with this assessment, compared with 1998 levels of 854 and 909, respectively.
In order to save creatures like these from extinction, the United States created a law to protect them called the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).
Marine Mammal Protection Act
Enacted in 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act required the federal government to conserve marine mammals. The act makes it illegal to ‘take’ marine mammals without a permit. This means people may not harass, feed, hunt, capture, collect, or kill any marine mammal or part of a marine mammal. The MMPA was created to maintain the Optimum Sustainable Population (OSP). According to MMPA section 3, line 9, OSP is defined as “the number of animals which will result in the maximum productivity of the population or the species.” This number varies by species, but is tied to the amount of animals in the natural habitat.
There should not be a large decrease in a population or else the productivity of the population is not maximized. Harassment of marine mammals also became prohibited. Harassment is defined as “an act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance which has the potential to injure, or disturb by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild.” This is when the government steps in.
Three major federal government groups split up the responsibilities:
1. The National Marine Fisheries Service
2. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
3. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service
The National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is in charge of managing cetaceans (whale, dolphin, or porpoise), otariids (sea lion), and phocids (harbor seal). Their mission is to use science and an ecosystem-based approach to maintain the recovery and conservation of protected resources. U.S. fisheries are one of the world’s largest and sustainable fisheries in the world.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, part of the Department of the Interior, oversees odobenids (walrus), sirenians (sea cow), otters, and polar bears. They help the public better understand, appreciate, and wisely use fish and wildlife resources.
The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, part of the Department of Agriculture, regulates the facilities in which marine mammals are housed in captivity. Life for marine mammals in captivity is shown to be stressful for the animals. Whales and dolphins for examples can hardly swim in the tanks they are in. The shallow tanks also interfere with the natural tendencies to swim below the surface. When killer whales (orcas), are captured, their dorsal fin collapses. Without the support of water, gravity pulls these tall appendages over as the whale matures. This happens to all orcas in captivity, but only 1% of those in the wild. The MMPA has become a focal point in stopping the capture of orca for show in places such as SeaWorld.
Exceptions to MMPA
Although the MMPA protects all marine mammals, there are exceptions to the law:
1. Pre-MMPA specimens taken before December 21, 1972
2. International Agreements entered into by the United States before December 21, 1972
3. Alaska natives
4. Scientific research, public display, enhancing the survival or recovery of a species, and incidental take in commercial fisheries
5. Waivers granted by the U.S. Government
The MMPA cannot punish people for actions taken before the Act passed. For this reason, Pre-MMPA specimens taken before December 21, 1972 are exempt. Similarly, any International Agreements the U.S. entered into must be continued until the end of the contract.
Alaska natives are a small group of people and do not have much of an impact on the natural environment, but the natural environment has a large impact on them. They must use all available resources to keep warm during the brutal winters and find food in an ice desert. Native Alaskans produce food, clothes for personal and familial use, and can sell the remaining parts for cash which keeps their small economy running.
Few exceptions are allowed for scientific research, especially for endangered marine mammal species. There must be strong evidence for why a marine mammal should be killed for public display or research for survival. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, incidental take is defined as “an unintentional, but unexpected, taking.” There has been controversy over this definition; for example, commercial fishing companies that try to catch fish, but accidentally catch and kill a seal in its nets.
Greenpeace is an environmental organization founded by Irving Stowe and Dorothy Stowe and other activists in 1971. On its website, it states, “We defend the natural world and promote peace by investigating, exposing, and confronting environmental abuse, championing environmentally responsible solutions, and advocating for the rights and well-being of all people.” Some examples of issues that Greenpeace campaigns on are: climate change, deforestation, overfishing, commercial whaling, genetic engineering, and anti-nuclear issues. They use methods such as direct action, lobbying, and research. Greenpeace is best known for destructive or obstructive behavior designed to publicize or harass the people believed to be causing environmental damage , otherwise known as ecotage.
An article on VoaNews.com explains one of these recent events. On July 3rd, 2018 it was reported that “Greenpeace crashed a Superman-shaped drone into a French nuclear plant… to demonstrate its vulnerability to outside attacks.” In this example, Greenpeace attacked a nuclear plant to show the public that the spent-fuel pools outside the reactor can be easily attacked. France generates 75% of its electricity from nuclear power. Greenpeace did make the news, but otherwise did not cause too much of a scene. There was no reported damage to the site, but Greenpeace was ordered to pay a fine of $58,300 and some members were given suspended jail sentences.