House Passes Bill to Amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act On Monday, July 17, 2006 the House of Representatives approved the highly anticipated bill (H.R. 4075) to amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The MMPA was enacted in 1972 to protect marine mammal species at risk of depletion. The bill, introduced by Rep. Pombo originally contained provisions that would weaken the MMPA. Although the final version of the bill which passed in the House still contains some damaging changes, Rep. Pombo made some unexpected improvements to the bill just before its passage.
The original version of H.R. 4075 contained negative amendments to vital bycatch deadlines and weakened protections for animals used in research and those kept in captivity.
Some Good Changes to the Bill
Last minute changes to the bill maintained the deadlines for the Zero Rate Mortality Goal, which states that commercial and recreational fisheries must reduce the number of whales, dolphins, manatees, seals, and other marine animals that are unintentionally caught. Although the deadline officially expired in 2001, it is important to keep working towards reducing bycatch to zero.
Beneficial changes were also made to the Pinniped Research section of the MMPA. Pinnipeds are seals, sea lions and walruses. The Act now requires the Secretary of the Interior to research non-lethal pinniped control methods and also allows independent marine mammal research institutions to have a role in this research. Under the new provisions conservation groups and others with scientific expertise are also allowed into the research group.
Protections were also provided to polar bears in the final version of the bill. The new provision prohibits the import or export of polar bear gall bile or gall bladder. The provision follows the newly passed US-Russia Polar Bear Treaty which limits hunting of polar bears to subsistence hunts, provides quotas for those hunts and establishes an American-Russian commission charged with analyzing how best to sustain the polar bear habitat. One possible downside to this amendment is that it minimizes the input of the US delegation and gives Native groups greater power which could limit the amount of protection offered to the polar bears.
The Bad Changes to the Bill
The damaging amendments that made it through to the final bill and which were passed relate to changes to the standards for marine mammals in captivity. These include animals kept in public aquaria and those kept in research facilities, such as the Research Corporation of University of Hawai'i. The University and its Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee were recently fined $65,000 by the US Department of Agriculture for violations of the Animal Welfare Act over conditions at the now-closed Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Lab where four dolphins died in a 30-month period.
The MMPA changes which the House passed now make it possible for private enterprises to 'own' cetaceans held in public facilities. This is dramatically different than the earlier version of the MMPA in which animals belonged to the public and the facilities merely cared for the animals as custodians. This is significant as it provides affirmation to many in the captivity industry that whales, dolphins and other marine mammals are merely commodities under their direct control and not entitles in the public domain under their temporary stewardship.
The bill has now been moved to the Senate for consideration.