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Failure to Assess Fisheries Threat to Marine Life

US - The National Marine Fisheries Service has been slammed by a recent report for failures to accurately access the damage thsat fisheries cause to marine mammals.

Because marine mammals, such as whales and dolphins, often inhabit waters where commercial fishing occurs, they can become entangled in fishing gear, which may injure or kill them--this is referred to as "incidental take."

The 1994 amendments to the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) require the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to establish take reduction teams for certain marine mammals to develop measures to reduce their incidental takes.

The US Government Accountability Office was asked to determine the extent to which NMFS can accurately identify the marine mammal stocks--generally a population of animals of the same species located in a common area--that meet the MMPA's requirements for establishing such teams. It also investigated how NMFS has established teams for those stocks that meet the requirements and whether it met the MMPA's deadlines for the teams subject to them.

The GAO report found that for most stocks, NMFS relies on incomplete, outdated, or imprecise data on stocks' population size or mortality to calculate the extent of incidental take. As a result, the agency may overlook some marine mammal stocks that meet the MMPA's requirements for establishing teams or inappropriately identify others as meeting them.

NMFS officials told GAO they are aware of the data limitations but lack funding to implement their plans to improve the data. On the basis of NMFS's available information, GAO identified 30 marine mammal stocks that have met the MMPA's requirements for establishing a take reduction team, and NMFS has established six teams that cover 16 of them.

For the other 14 stocks, the agency has not complied with the MMPA's requirements. For example, false killer whales, found off the Hawaiian Islands, have met the statutory requirements since 2004, but NMFS has not established a team for them because, according to NMFS officials, the agency lacks sufficient funds.

According to conclusions of the GAO report the NMFS does not have a comprehensive strategy for assessing the effectiveness of take reduction plans and implementing regulations that have been implemented. NMFS has taken some steps to define goals, monitor compliance, and assess whether the goals have been met, but shortcomings in its approach and limitations in its performance data weaken its ability to assess the success of its take reduction regulations.

For example, without adequate information about compliance, if incidental takes continue once the regulations have been implemented, it will be difficult to determine whether the regulations were ineffective or whether the fisheries were not complying with them.

the Fish Site Editor

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