By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block
It’s hard to imagine our oceans without the beautiful and diverse creatures who inhabit them. Sharks, whales, dolphins, seals, sea turtles and thousands of other marine animals who call the waters their home are not simply representative of the wonders of the natural world, they also play an integral role in keeping our ocean ecosystems healthy and in balance. At the same time, a flourishing marine environment, clean, mineral rich, and free from toxic pollution and other human-caused threats, essential in its own right, is also critical to the survival of countless species, including our own.
Unfortunately, we have not treated the animals who inhabit the world’s oceans with the kindness and consideration they deserve. Many marine animals suffer needlessly because of human activities, including climate change, pollution and habitat loss, and some are teetering on the brink of extinction. Unless we act fast, some of them could be lost forever.
The Humane Society family of organizations has been fighting for a long time to save marine animals most at risk of disappearing, and over the years we have made progress in reducing some of the worst atrocities. Among many successes, we have worked with several nations and U.S. states to ban the sale of shark fins. We have pushed to expand the boundaries of the existing critical habitat of critically endangered right whales. We have helped protect nesting beaches of sea turtles in India and reduced the demand for sea turtle shell in Latin America and Asia. We have worked to bring down the demand for seal skin worldwide and sharply reduced the numbers of seals slaughtered in Canada.
We have been a strong influence at the International Whaling Commission, where we have battled to maintain a worldwide ban on commercial whaling and where we also assist with key projects to conserve dolphins and porpoises threatened by activities in their habitats, including noise, pollution and indiscriminate fishing. These include the Baltic and Iberian Harbour Porpoises of Europe and all surviving species of river dolphins found in the great river systems of Asia and Latin America.
But it will take time, and a great deal more effort, to undo the damage done over centuries of exploiting these animals and disregarding their welfare. World Oceans Day today—a day to reflect on the critical role oceans play in our lives—offers us an opportunity to look back on the progress made and renew our commitment to pushing even harder in coming months and years to save the wonderful animals who inhabit our oceans.
Here are some of the priority marine animal issues we are now working on, even as we continue to fight on many more fronts globally to help marine animals:
- Right whales: There are fewer than 400 North Atlantic right whales left in the oceans. Whaling and modern threats like ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear have decimated their numbers, causing many of these animals to die slow, painful deaths. The number of right whales dying each year far exceeds the number of new calves born, meaning this species could go extinct within our lifetimes. We are working on two fronts to help conserve right whales:
- The SAVE Right Whales Act, S. 2453 /H.R. 1568: This bill In Congress, introduced by Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J. and Representatives Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and John Rutherford, R-Fla, would provide financial assistance to aid the conservation of these whales. The bill passed committees in both chambers last year, and Humane Society Legislative Fund is championing its passage.
- The National Marine Fisheries Service is considering a proposed rule that would restrict where, when and how fishermen can set their gear, potentially sparing the suffering—and the lives—of many right whales. We continue to urge the NMFS to move forward with this rule.
- Sharks: Every year, tens of millions of sharks worldwide are killed for their fins, most often to be used for shark fin soup. Today, a quarter of all shark and related species are threatened with extinction. And although the act of finning—which involves hacking the fins off of live sharks and then throwing them back into the water to die of shock, blood loss, or predation—is prohibited in U.S. waters, the domestic trade in shark fins continues to fuel the practice of finning in other countries that have no bans or limited restrictions.
In Congress, Sens. Booker and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., have introduced the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act, S. 877. If enacted, it would prohibit the possession, sale, and trade of shark fins and products containing shark fins throughout the country. The bill would also end the U.S. role as a major transit hub for transnational shipments of shark fins. The U.S. House version of the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act passed that chamber last year by a wide margin and it now awaits a floor vote in the Senate. At the state level, 15 states and three U.S. territories have banned or limited the trade in shark fins.
- Dolphins: A population of dolphins that lives along the Hawaiian Islands, known as false killer whales because of their resemblance to the large marine mammals, has been impacted in its habitat because of commercial fisheries. These animals are often injured or killed by hooks the commercial fishing industry sets out for other fish, and today there are just an estimated 150 false killer whales left along the Hawaiian Islands. Commercial fisheries are currently trying to reopen certain areas that were made off limits to them because of excessive fishery-related mortalities of false killer whales. The HSUS serves on a stakeholder advisory group appointed by the National Marine Fisheries Service that is looking into reducing such mortalities.
Your support is crucial, as always, in moving the needle forward for these animals. Please take a few moments today to contact your lawmakers in Congress to urge their support for the bills to save right whales and sharks. Our oceans would make no sense without these and other marine wildlife, so let’s work together to help these precious animals survive and thrive for generations to come.
Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.