By Sara Amundson and Kitty Block
Fewer than 400 North Atlantic right whales remain on our planet; fins from 73 million sharks are traded every year; warming waters render habitats increasingly unlivable for animals once at home there. Clearly, the status quo for the animals of our oceans urgently needs to change.
On World Oceans Day, we highlight some of the most urgent threats to marine life right now and what the Humane Society family of organizations is doing to address them.
Promising progress for sharks
Not only are sharks fascinating creatures, but they are also important indicators of the health of our oceans. Sadly, a quarter of all shark and related species are currently threatened with extinction, and current rates of fishing mortality are unsustainable for these slow-reproducing animals. In particular, every year, tens of millions of sharks worldwide are killed for their fins, most often for shark fin soup. The practice known as shark finning involves hacking the fins off sharks while they are still alive and then throwing them back into the sea; unable to move, they die of shock, blood loss or predation. Thankfully, shark finning is prohibited in U.S. waters, but our domestic trade in shark fins continues to fuel finning in other countries with no similar restrictions.
There is hope. The Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act, introduced as S. 1106 by Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., would remove the U.S. from the global shark fin trade. This legislation is currently moving through the U.S. Senate as part of a larger legislative package. We urge the Senate to move quickly and the House to take up the legislation which it previously passed by an overwhelming bipartisan vote.
If enacted, the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act would be a gamechanger for shark protection in the U.S., prohibiting the commercial trade of shark fins and products containing shark fins throughout the country. Already, 17 states and three U.S. territories have banned or limited the trade in shark fins. A federal law banning the shark fin trade would make the U.S. truly stand out as a leader in shark protection.
Helping marine mammals in U.S. waters and around the world
Each year in the U.S., thousands of sick and injured marine mammals receive care thanks to support from the John H. Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Grant Program. From its inception in 2000 through 2017, the Prescott Grant Program provided 739 grants to regional networks that collectively responded to an average of 5,167 sick and injured marine mammals each year. The Marine Mammal Research and Response Act (S. 1289, led by Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and H.R. 2848, led by Reps. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., Brian Mast, R-Fla., and Marilyn Strickland, D-Wash.) would reauthorize the funding program. The Senate recently passed its bill unanimously through the Senate Commerce Committee.
There are also legislative efforts to address the adverse impacts of climate change on marine mammals including the Marine Mammal Climate Change Protection Act, introduced last week by Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif. and the Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act, championed by Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., which is expected to be reintroduced this week.
Protecting the oceans requires international collaboration, which is why Humane Society International focuses on protecting marine wildlife globally, working to raise the profile of the world’s most threatened species and populations of whales, dolphins and porpoises and to ensure their future as healthy populations in clean seas. Also, the U.S. is a leading member nation of the International Whaling Commission, whose work in recent years has become increasingly crucial to conserving the world’s whales, dolphins and porpoises. We expect the U.S. to continue its strong support of the IWC and to lend its leadership to helping address the threats to these animals, including incidental capture in fishing nets, pollution, climate change and commercial whaling.
The fight to save the last North Atlantic right whales
Just a few hundred North Atlantic right whales are left. These beautiful creatures are dying out because they become entangled in the heavy lines used in lobster and crab trap fisheries or being struck in vessel collisions.
We were disappointed by the long-awaited National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s biological opinion regarding the need to reduce deaths of North Atlantic right whales. Both the timeline for action and the conservation framework fall far short of what’s needed to reduce their annual death toll. We are urging decisive action immediately for this dwindling species.
How you can help
All year round, advocates throughout the Humane Society family of organizations fight to protect marine animals and strengthen the health of our ocean ecosystems. Everyone can join in this movement: Take action for marine animals by urging your Representative to pass the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act, and help raise awareness about the threats to our oceans by spreading the word among your friends and family.
We share our planet and our ocean ecosystems with amazing creatures. It’s up to all of us ensure that these animals and their habitats prosper for generations to come.
Kitty Block is President and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States.