On June 20, 12 U.S. Senators, led by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, wrote to Acting Commerce Secretary Cameron Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew calling for measures in the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) to apply to seafood imported to the U.S.

Currently, all fisheries in U.S. waters must follow strict regulations to limit any potential harm to marine mammals. The letter asks that these rules now apply to international fisheries that sell their catch domestically.

When it was first passed in 1972, the MMPA contained a provision requiring internationally-caught seafood to meet American marine mammal protection standards. Specifically, section 101(a)(2) states: ''[t]he Secretary of the Treasury shall ban the importation of commercial fish or products from fish which have been caught with commercial fishing technology which results in the incidental kill or incidental serious injury of ocean mammals in excess of United States standards.   For purposes of applying the preceding sentence, the Secretary [of Commerce]- (A) shall insist on reasonable proof from the government of any nation from which fish or fish products will be exported to the United States of the effects on ocean mammals of the commercial fishing technology in use for such fish or fish products exported from such nation to the United States.''

This section of the Act has never been implemented. The Senators are calling for this measure to finally be enforced both to improve international marine mammal conservation, and ensure that American fishermen are not at a competitive disadvantage by abiding by comprehensive conservation measures that do not apply to their foreign counterparts. In 2008, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Turtle Island Restoration Network similarly petitioned the Departments of Commerce, Treasury, and Homeland Security to extend MMPA protections to international fisheries.

The full text of the letter is reproduced below.

The Honorable Cameron F. Kerry
Acting Secretary
U.S. Department of Commerce
1401 Constitution Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20230

The Honorable Jacob J. Lew
U.S. Department of the Treasury
1500 Pennsylvania Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20220

Dear Secretary Kerry and Secretary Lew,

Through the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) the United States has adopted some of the world's strongest protections for whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals. But the purposes of the MMPA extend far beyond the protection of marine mammals in our waters. The MMPA was also designed to promote such protection globally and to ensure a level playing field to protect U.S. fishermen from unfair international competition. Unfortunately, these key elements of the MMPA remain largely unimplemented.

To reduce the risk of marine mammal entanglement in fishing gear, many U.S. commercial fisheries, like the U.S. swordfish fishery, observe an extensive and expensive set of regulations, including gear modifications, seasonal limits, area closures, and specialized training for releasing marine mammals unharmed. In stark contrast internationally, hundreds of thousands of marine mammals are caught and killed each year in unregulated or under regulated fisheries, yet the resulting fish products are imported into the United States to freely compete with U.S.-regulated fisheries.

Under section 101(a)(2)(A) of the MMPA, the Secretaries of Commerce and the Treasury must ensure that all fish products imported into the U.S. were caught with marine mammal protections equivalent to our own. Specifically, it provides that the Secretary of Commerce "shall insist" that any importing nation prove how their fishing methods affect marine mammals. The Secretary of the Treasury "shall ban the importation" of fish caught by methods that take marine mammals "in excess of United States standards." Although this Congressional mandate has existed since 1972, neither Department has implemented these critical provisions of law at great cost to our nation's fishing industry and marine mammal conservation objectives.

We are aware that the Commerce Department, through its National Marine Fisheries Service, is developing legal standards to implement the MMPA import provisions. We encourage the agency to promptly propose and finalize these regulations. We further request that Treasury fully enforce the MMPA to protect both U.S. fishermen and marine mammals worldwide.

Thank you for your consideration. We look forward to your reply.


John D. Rockefeller IV (D, WV)
Angus S. King (I, ME)
Benjamin Cardin (D, MD)
Richard Blumenthal (D, CT)
Bill Nelson (D, FL)
Kirsten E. Gillibrand (D, NY)
Maria Cantwell (D, WA)
Brian Schatz (D, HI)
Mazie K. Hirono (D, HI)
Sheldon Whitehouse (D, RI)
Barbara Boxer (D, CA)
Elizabeth Warren (D, MA)

Read a PDF of the letter

Read the 2008 petition from the Center for Biological Diversity and the Turtle Island Restoration Network