Protection of Marine Mammals at Issue in Bills before Congress Critics Assail a Proposal That Would Make Agencies Prove Harm to Animals before Fishing Is Limited

Article excerpt

CONGRESS is wrestling over legislation sure to affect the future of whales, dolphins, seals, and other marine mammals. At stake are species depleted by human activity. Watching carefully are fishing communities from New England to Alaska.

The issue is reauthorization of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972, the first major wildlife conservation law passed in the United States and precursor to the Endangered Species Act passed a year later.

The law prevents the import or the "taking" of marine mammals, although it allows exemptions for scientific research, public display in aquariums, and some "incidental" taking that results from commercial fishing.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation has approved legislation that will be taken up by the Senate shortly. That bill, whose chief sponsor is Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, would reauthorize the act in a way many conservationists and marine biologists say would weaken protections for marine mammals.

Among criticisms of the Senate bill: It would make it easier to "take" not only depleted stocks as part of commercial fishing but also threatened and endangered species; it would weaken the monitoring program; it would reduce penalties for violations; and most significantly, it would shift the burden of proof in determining whether an incidental taking will adversely affect marine-mammal stocks.

Behind the scenes, there has been a flurry of Capitol Hill lobbying by conservationists and the fishing industry to influence proposed legislation before the April 1 deadline for reauthorization. Many people involved expect bills in the Senate and House to change before then.

Under current law, the burden of proof is on fishermen to show no harm would be done. Under the Senate bill, federal agencies would have to prove damage would be done in order to limit fishing and its economic benefit to many communities.

"This proposed change is not insignificant. It is a profound philosophical and practical change in the basic structure of the act," warns John Twiss, executive director of the Marine Mammal Commission, created under the 1972 legislation to advise Congress and federal agencies.

In a Dec. …