North Atlantic right whales are facing a breeding and survival crisis, due in large part to entanglements in fishing gear. Humpback whales are dying in unprecedented numbers off the Northeastern U.S., some are also casualties of entanglements while others have fatally collided with ships, and the causes of death of others are unknown. Vaquitas face an almost certain extinction thanks to the use of gillnets used for fishing, which indiscriminately trap and kill these small porpoises.
North Atlantic right whales. Photo: Lauren Packard / Flickr
When President Trump had the opportunity this year to make a difference in the lives of these imperiled marine mammals, he didn’t. He wanted to cut funding in the Federal 2018 Budget for the Marine Mammal Commission, an independent government agency established by the Marine Mammal Protection Act 46 years ago, which is responsible for advising U.S. policy decisions affecting marine mammals and establishing a conservation ethic through sound science. Over the years, the Commission has helped prevent the deaths of millions of marine mammals from human activities such as oil drilling, mining, transportation, seismic blasting and fishing bycatch. Since the Marine Mammal Act has been in existence, no marine mammals have gone extinct in U.S. waters.
While the activities the Marine Mammal Commission performs are critically important to protecting millions of animals, they are not expensive to carry out. In fact, its 2017 budget of $3.4 million cost American taxpayers just one cent that year. But Trump thinks Americans’ pennies could be better spent elsewhere, on the U.S. military or building his wall between the U.S. and Mexico.
Two weeks ago it looked like the Marine Mammal Commission would be slashed. But thanks to thousands of concerned people criticizing Trump’s plan in letters to the U.S. government and a few decisive budget compromises, the Marine Mammal Commission will be funded through another year. It will maintain the same budget as last year, $3.4 million, which advocates for the Commission say should be sufficient to fund its essential activities.
Pacific white-sided dolphin. Photo: Erica Cirino
“Of course, additional funds are desirable to match the increasing costs and competing interests,” said Sheri Pais, a paralegal at Perkins Coie LLP who was involved in helping the public prepare and send letters about the importance of funding the Marine Mammal Commission to the Federal government. “But, the Commission has demonstrated in the past that it has been effective at this level of funding.”
While the Marine Mammal Commission has survived another year, Trump is still working to dismantle protections for the oceans and the life they contain—putting big business interests before the health of the environment. He’s working to open coastal waters to oil drilling, overhaul rules on seismic oil exploration in the oceans and fast-track other exploitative activities associated with the petrochemical industry that imperil marine life.
Trump has quietly managed to push two bills through the committee to a vote: the Streamlining Environmental Approvals, or SEA, Act and Strengthening the Economy with Critical Untapped Resources to Expand American Energy, or SECURE, Act. These bills target important aspects of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which regulates exploratory seismic blasts used to find oil and gas. Seismic blasts are known to harm and disrupt the natural activities of whales, dolphins and other cetaceans to the extent that it impairs their survival.
Risso’s dolphins. Photo: Erica Cirino
Ocean advocates urge the public to place steady, strong pressure on the Trump administration when it comes to safeguarding the health and safety of the sea. Keep tabs on Trump’s latest efforts to slash funding and support for groups and activities that protect the oceans by checking the Safina Center’s Ocean Issues webpage frequently for news, and actions you can take to make a difference.
It’s been nearly 9 years since The Cove brought the story of dolphin massacres in Taiji, Japan, and the issue of captive cetaceans before the eyes of millions of people around the world. The film shows viewers the images of fishers corralling dozens of thrashing and squealing dolphins into nets set up in Japan’s sheltered Taiji Cove with their boats. Once the dolphins are trapped in the nets, the fishers stab most of the dolphins with long gaffs, turning the water red with dolphin blood. A few of the youngest, healthiest dolphins are spared—instead of being killed, the fishers tie them up in nets and bring them to shore, to be sold into captivity at marine parks across Asia. When the film was released, scientists said up to 22,000 small cetaceans—small whales, porpoises and dolphins—were killed in these Japanese hunting expeditions annually.
While The Cove has inspired many to oppose Japan’s treatment of cetaceans, the Taiji hunts have persisted—with Japan defending the hunts as a “cultural tradition.” However, significant progress has been made worldwide in challenging humans’ perceptions around cetacean captivity and cruelty. Across the world, some countries and states have banned keeping cetaceans in captivity, obtaining cetaceans from the wild for captivity and/or captive cetacean performances; activities marine mammal experts say are cruel. Responding to pressure from scientists, activists and the public, in 2016 SeaWorld announced it would no longer breed killer whales.
The most recent country to enact its own legislation affecting captive cetaceans is South Korea, which had been importing an estimated 70 percent of its captive dolphins from Taiji, according to Hotpinkdolphins, an organization that promotes cetacean rights in the country. Thanks to the work of Hotpinkdolphins and several other South Korean nonprofits, last month, South Korea’s Ministry of Environment prohibited the importation of Taiji dolphins to the country, and also the importation of threatened dolphin populations—such as around Jeju Island. While South Korea’s ban will help a small number of dolphins, and does not go so far as to prohibit dolphin captivity, it’s an event that animal rights activists are celebrating as a win that brings the Taiji hunts back into the spotlight for the world to discuss and react to.
Short-beaked common dolphin, Great south channel off montauk, NY. Photo: Carl Safina
The effort to ban Taiji dolphins from being imported into South Korea began with Hotpinkdolphins’ efforts to free captive Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins captured off South Korea’s Jeju Island in 2011. Over the years, the organization has sent 7 native dolphins back into South Korean waters. But in 2012 the organization realized most of the country’s captive dolphins were from Taiji, and that because they were from Japan—where people support hunting dolphins—it would need to prevent Taiji’s dolphins from being exported to South Korea in the first place.
“Dolphin shows in South Korea have many problems like elsewhere,” said Joyakgol, co-founder of Hotpinkdolphins. “It’s imperative to stop the trade from the beginning. This is our way of saving Taiji dolphins.”
Hotpinkdolphins pushed a dolphin-park boycott campaign during many street demonstrations and on social media, as well as in government meetings, press conferences, statements, symposiums and more. Joyakgol said that played a huge role in the lead-up to the new ban, but that it was its successful return of captive wild-caught dolphins into nature that made the biggest splash.
Pacific white-sided dolphins in Monterey Bay, California. Photo: Erica Cirino
“Most importantly, sending seven captive dolphins back to the wild was the greatest achievement, and it convinced many Korea people including government officials that dolphins do not belong to the tank,” said Joyakgol.
Forty-four Taiji dolphins were imported to South Korea from 2010 to 2017. Since January 2018, that number has been zero, and if the ban holds, will remain that way indefinitely.
Pacific white-sided dolphin in Monterey Bay. Photo: Erica Cirino
“It’s time to bring an end to the entire enterprise of keeping dolphins and whales confined to concrete tanks and performing for their keep,” said Marino. “And I hope the South Korean government ensures that any captive dolphins who are imported from other captive facilities were not originally taken in the Taiji drives. The chain of exploitation and marketing of dolphins and whales for entertainment has to be broken once and for all.”