Last month we celebrated the 45th anniversary of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).
It has been at the foundation of our nation’s environmental policies since it became law in 1972, yielding some pretty remarkable results.
Dolphins, whales and sea lions can flip, flop and play anywhere near U.S. coastlines, free of potential threats from commercial and recreational fishermen. The MMPA’s success means that whale watching and taking pictures of sea lions lounging on the beach are common activities in our country.
The growth of our economy is dependent on coastal regions, which represented 75% of America’s economic growth between 1997 and 2007. Laws like the MMPA protect the mammals that bring life to the coastal tourism and recreation sectors of our economy. In 2016, coastal tourism and recreation represented 71% of employment in coastal industries and regions.
Why would anyone want to threaten a law that protects some of the Earth’s most majestic creatures?
The U.S. House of Representatives Bill H.R. 3133 (SEA Act of 2017) aims to do just that. It is a gross rollback of administrative authority over the permit process for the incidental ‘take’ and ‘harassment’ of marine mammals. The SEA Act of 2017 seeks to weaken administrative authority over seismic air gun surveying for oil and gas in the Atlantic. It would also derail integral procedures like Incidental Harassment Authorizations (IHA’s) that authorize the incidental take of small quantities of marine mammals; these permits are usually given to commercial fishing companies. IHA permit holders could exempt themselves from adhering to the Endangered Species Act (ESA), causing harm to endangered populations of marine mammals with no repercussions for commercial fishing companies or seismic air gun surveying companies.
Making matters worse, the potential consequences of the SEA Act of 2017 have become even more dangerous. The reason? The legislation is now being rolled into an energy bill that is moving through the House of Representatives. Instead of members of Congress being able to vote against the bill directly, they now have to vote against the entire energy package.
Reforming permit review processes, at its core, is a problem of capacity and resources. If lawmakers wanted to make getting an IHA permit easier, more efficient and faster they would provide NOAA with more funding for its permitting department.
Three big ways the SEA Act of 2017 will hurt marine mammals:
- New IHA permit guidelines: IHA permits are currently assigned to small geographic regions, making it illegal for commercial and recreational fishermen to accidentally take marine mammals out of their habitat if it is not within the geographic region the permit authorizes. This bill would give IHA permits a much broader geographic region, reducing National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) authority over setting specific boundaries (square nautical miles M2) for the incidental ‘take’ of a marine mammal.
- Unrealistic permit approval timeline: Make the permit process less secure, favoring hasty approval over marine mammal safety. Puts artificial limits on the timeline NOAA scientist have to approve permits. Allotting NOAA scientist 120 days to approve or reject a permit, along with 14 days to approve or reject a permit extension. Under this bill, both extension permits and initial permits would automatically be approved if a decision is not made, by NOAA scientist, prior to the deadlines outlined in this legislation.
- Exemptions from impact monitoring: Eliminating the reporting responsibility and monitoring requirements that pertain to assessing the impact seismic air gun surveying has on the marine mammals present during the period the surveying activities are taking place.
Ocean Conservancy is among the many groups working to prevent legislation like the SEA Act of 2017 from becoming law.
Three ways how you can help:
- Call your Representative or Senator. Let them know that conservation laws like the MMPA have brought marine mammal species back from the brink of extinction. Threats to the protections outlined in the MMPA would have direct and negative consequences for marine mammals.
- Request in-district meetings with your Representatives or Senators. Tell them why the MMPA is important to you. Let them know that your community does not support SEA Act of 2017.
- Share your story on social media. Get the word out and support marine mammal conservation using #defendmarinemammals and #TheMoreYouNOAA
Our ocean and the marine mammals that call it home need your help. Join us in defending the MMPA!
Photo provided by Bethany Augliere