Is the U.S. Failing to Protect Marine Species?
This week a conservation group filed a petition with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) that seeks to double the number of marine species getting special protection in an effort to correct the bias we seem to have for protecting land-dwelling animals.
According to Wildearth Guardians, the U.S. has largely failed to protect marine species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which is intended to protect the most vulnerable plants and animals.
However, of the 2,097 species that have received protection since 1973, only 94 are marine species.
“Our oceans and the species that call them home are facing unprecedented threats from fishing, ocean acidification, pollution from toxic runoff and dumping of waste at sea,” said Bethany Cotton, Wildlife Program Director at WildEarth Guardians. “Our petition seeks legal protections for eighty one of the most imperiled marine species.”
There are a number of theories as to why there is such an imbalance in protection, ranging from an out of sight, out of mind mentality for those who don’t draw as much attention as say sea turtles, sharks and dolphins, to stronger science existing to support protection for terrestrial creatures.
Ellen K. Pikitch, executive director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University offered another explanation to the Washington Post, stating that “People have had this idea for way too long that the seas are so vast and limitless that nothing we could ever do could hurt them. It’s hard to shake that.”
However, with science catching up for marine species there’s no longer any scientific basis for leaving so many vulnerable animals without protection. According to Cotton, it’s the governments responsibility to focus on science and it hasn’t been doing that and action at the international level has been stymied by politics.
“Just as the most politically volatile discussions on terrestrial animals revolve around elephants, because of the money involved in the ivory trade, this is also true of the coral used in jewelry and the sharks killed for the lucrative fin trade. That’s why it’s particularly important that the United States, which has supported protection efforts on sharks and coral at the international level, to do whatever it can under domestic laws to protect those species,” she told IPS.
All 81 species included in the petition face extinction in the wild and have been deemed endangered or critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
According to the petition, listing these species under the ESA would protect populations of corals, individual fish, hagfish, mammals, rays and skates, sea snakes and sharks in U.S. waters in the Atlantic, Pacific and U.S. Territorial waters elsewhere by prohibiting the import and export of products derived from them and assisting law enforcement with international conservation efforts.
“The Obama Administration acknowledges our oceans’ health is rapidly declining, even issuing an executive order instructing all federal agencies to do all they can to protect the ocean. Our petition is an effort to press NMFS to take concrete action in keeping with the President’s direction,” said Guardians’ General Counsel, Jay Tutchton. “If NMFS won’t take action in situations as dire as those faced by these critically imperiled species, it signals the Agency doesn’t really want to do anything but talk about declining ocean health.”
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