1972 Law Has Done Well To Protect Sea Mammals In US Waters
April 12, 2013

1972 Law Has Done Well To Protect Sea Mammals In US Waters

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

In October 1972, Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), a landmark law that enacted a moratorium on the import, export, and financial transaction of any marine mammal or their parts within the United States.

To mark the 40th anniversary of its passage, a team of American biologists has published an analysis of the law´s effectiveness in the latest edition of the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS).

“At a very fundamental level, the MMPA has accomplished what its framers set out to do,” said co-author Andrew Read, a marine biologist at Duke University, “to protect individual marine mammals from harm as a result of human activities.”

“We have seen remarkable recoveries of some populations of marine mammals, such as gray seals in New England and sea lions and elephant seals along the Pacific coast,” he added.

Despite the conservation successes of the MMPA, the scientists suggested that more could be done to boost struggling mammal populations.

“US waters are pretty compromised with lots of ship traffic and ship strikes, big fisheries, pollution, boat noise, “ co-author Joe Roman, from the University of Vermont (UVM), said in a statement. “And yet it´s safer to be a marine mammal in US waters than elsewhere.”

To analyze the law´s effectiveness, the scientists collected data from around the world, including information from American, Canadian and international agencies. They were able to determine stock levels and trends of more than two hundred marine mammal populations.

While the team wasn´t able to collect enough data for many mammals included under the law, they did see that 19 percent of stocks were increasing, five percent were stable and only five percent were declining, according to the report.

Roman also advised “stopping harvesting these mammals, stop fisheries bycatch, stop killing them – and many populations bounce back.”

Because of marine mammals´ longer life cycles, “it´s going to take decades, maybe longer for populations to rebound,” he added, “but it seems the trends are increasing.”

During the debate over the MMPA, the Department of Defense objected to its passage on the grounds that sperm whale oil was a necessary lubricant in submarines and other military engines.

However, Lee Talbot, a scientific advisor for then-President Richard Nixon, found documentation showing that the DuPont Corporation was capable of producing an artificial lubricant that would serve the same purpose — easing the path forward for the protective legislation. Many cite the MMPA´s passage as a key step toward the passage of the more robust Endangered Species Act that passed the next year.

While the MMPA has generally been effective, it has not sufficiently prevented many problems that negatively impact the US marine mammal population, like increasing underwater noise from oil drilling, new diseases, and the negative effects of climate change.

“Existing conservation measures have not protected large whales from fisheries interactions or ship strikes in the northwestern Atlantic,” the report said.

Future legislators will likely face new challenges, including the movement of shipping lanes in whale feeding regions, slowing speed boats in manatee habitat, changing fishing techniques and improving ecosystem-based fisheries management.

“That´s going to be hard and require real political will,” Roman said.