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Marine Mammals and Fish

Marine Mammals in the Wild

With the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) in 1972, there was recognition of a public interest in protecting these animals—including whales and dolphins, many of whom are in danger of extinction. Marine mammal regulations address problems of these mammals in the wild, as well as of those held in captivity in the United States

The MMPA, which placed a moratorium on the taking and importing of marine mammals and marine mammal products,  was perpetuated by scientific evidence that many species of marine mammals were in danger of extinction due to human exploitation and interference. In particular, the MMPA defines the “taking” of marine mammals as harassing, hunting, capturing or killing with certain exceptions that require a permit. Exceptions to the MMPA include taking animals for scientific research, public display, photography for educational or commercial purposes, or enhancing the survival or recovery of a particular species.

Marine Mammals in Captivity

The U.S. government can grant permits for the capture of marine mammals for public display as an exception to the MMPA, if doing so enhances educational and conservation efforts. Aquariums and marine mammal parks, however, are hardly safe havens for marine mammals. Moreover, whale and dolphin performances subject these animals to unnatural and uncomfortable behavior while providing viewers with a misleading educational experience.

Whales and dolphins in captivity live decades shorter than their counterparts in the wild. In the open ocean, whales and dolphins swim up to one hundred miles a day.  Marine mammal tanks are less than one ten-thousandth of one percent (0.0001%) the size of the smallest range of wild marine mammals. Keeping them in these tanks subjects them to a lifetime of swimming in endless circles in an enclosure that for them is the size of a bathtub.  In addition, whales and dolphins, normally taken from their families in the wild, do not breed well in captivity.   Whales and dolphins also have complex social skills.  When they are kept in artificial environments and incompatible social groups, they are subject to chronic stress, which depresses their immune system and leaves them prone to disease and infection.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is now considering amendments to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but it may be months or years before they are implemented.

Sonar Testing by Military

Though it may lead to technological advancements for military defense, underwater military sonar testing can be fatal to marine animals. Testing sonar technology produces sound waves almost twice as loud as the loudest rock band and can travel hundreds of miles under water. This sound is extremely painful to marine mammals who rely on their hearing to perform basic life functions such as finding food, communicating with others and finding a mate. In order to escape the sound, they may swim hundreds of miles and rapidly change their depths in the ocean which can lead to bleeding in their brains, eyes and ears. After being exposed to sonar, some marine mammals have stranded themselves on shore, which has been devastating to certain populations over the past decade.

In September 2015, the U.S. Navy agreed to limit its use of sonar activities in light of a federal court decision earlier that year that found that U.S. Navy’s sonar testing activities illegally harmed more than 60 marine mammal populations.

Genetically Modified Fish

The approval of genetically modified fish by the FDA and their introduction to the U.S. market has become a matter of concern to animal advocates as well as to environmentalists, consumers and those interested in protecting regional wild-caught salmon markets. Concerns about genetically modified-fish have included food safety, the breeding and physical development of these fish, the threat of possible crossbreeding with wild populations, and the marketing and sale of such fish without any labelling pertaining to their origin.

Fish Farming

While fish farming, also known as aquaculture, is not a new method of producing animals for food, recent factory farming issues that affect livestock have raised concerns about the nature of confinement farming of any sort. The spread of disease, the use of antibiotics to prevent the loss of fish stock and the horrific living conditions of many fish raised on aquafarms are all serious problems. Environmentally, aquaculture can be a nightmare as the amount of “feed” that is needed to raise some popular fish exceeds the amount of fish produced for consumption. In addition, the amount of pollution that is produced in raising fish, sea urchins, mussels and even turtles in close confinement is of grave concern when it contaminates nearby groundwater supplies.

Shark Finning

The plight of many distinct species of sharks is also of concern because of the cruelty involved in hunting sharks for their fins and because of the sharp decline in the number of sharks around the world. Sharks are an important ocean predator and conservation efforts are essential to their continued survival.

Shark finning is a cruel and wasteful practice by which a fin is sliced off the living shark. The shark is then tossed back into the ocean where it is unable to swim and suffers a slow and painful death over the course of several days. Shark fins are primarily used to make shark fin soup, a traditional Chinese delicacy that is believed to have several health benefits. In reality the shark fin itself adds very little flavor to the soup and contains high levels of mercury, making it unfit for human consumption. Furthermore, the demand for shark fins has been a significant factor in the worldwide decline in most shark populations, many of which are already considered endangered.

Currently, ten U.S. states—California, Delaware Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Texas and Washington—prohibit the sale of shark fins.  In 2015, the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed a District Court’s decision to uphold California’s shark fin ban.