At the International Whaling Commission’s Scientific Committee in 1969, I pointed out that there was more economic benefit from whale watching than whale hunting.
My fellow committee members laughed skeptically.
After all, their job was to provide a scientific rationale for bigger whale hunting quotas for the countries they represented.
Nonetheless, change was coming. In the early 1970s, two situations — brought to the public’s attention by environmental advocates — triggered a tremendous wave of public concern for whales, dolphins, seals and other marine mammals. U.S. vessels fishing for tuna in the Eastern Pacific were catching, killing and discarding hundreds of thousands of dolphins in their nets, and hunters were slaughtering baby seals for their fur on the ice in Canada.
At the time, I was chief scientist for President Richard Nixon’s Council on Environmental Quality, and friends in Congress told me they had never received such a large volume of letters on any subject, other than the Vietnam War.
At the same time, Nixon was looking for ways to burnish his environmental credentials. I proposed to key White House staff that we write a science-based bill to protect marine mammals, and they told me to go for it.
Our team wrote a draft law — which became the Marine Mammal Protection Act — based on a series of ground-breaking principles that I viewed as important for the management of wild living natural resources.
Most notably, we incorporated a precautionary approach to account for scientific uncertainty. This was the first time that the precautionary principle appeared in legislation anywhere in the world.
We also determined that the objectives must include maintaining the health of the environment that supports marine mammals, rather than focusing purely on the status of any single species.
We also reversed the burden of proof: Those who want to harm marine mammals — directly or incidentally — must demonstrate that their actions won’t put the survival of the species at risk. Actions should be based on science, so we proposed an independent oversight body, the Marine Mammal Commission, and an associated scientific advisory committee.
The text evolved as it moved through the legislative process, and many individuals inside and outside Congress contributed to the final product, but these strong principles remained at the core. Today — 45 years later — they are as valid and necessary as they were in 1972 when the Marine Mammal Protection Act became law.
The law protects whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions, walruses, manatees, polar bears and sea otters in U.S. waters. The law also applies to U.S. citizens on the high seas and protects the rights of Alaska Natives to hunt marine mammals for subsistence purposes. Conservation successes in the Marine Mammal Protection Act era include greatly reduced dolphin deaths from tuna fishing, recovery of harbor porpoises in the Atlantic, rebounding of northern elephant seals in the Pacific, and improvements in the status of humpback whales and sea otters.
Due to the law, marine mammal species are faring much better on average in the United States than elsewhere. The law has also fostered some of the best marine mammal science in the world.
However, some marine mammals remain imperiled. For example, the North Atlantic right whale, with less than 500 animals, has suffered an unprecedented number of mortalities this year. Cook Inlet beluga whales are declining, numbering under 350. The southern resident killer whales number only 76. There are fewer than 50 Bryde’s whales remain in the Gulf of Mexico. All marine mammals remain at risk in an increasingly industrialized world.
The public continues to care deeply about marine mammals. A May 2017 poll revealed that 76 percent of Americans support protecting marine mammals from threats posed by human activities, and 73 percent support the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Yet the law is under attack on its 45th anniversary, especially from the oil and gas industry. Energy legislation currently moving forward in the U.S. House (H.R. 4239 and H.R. 3133) would eviscerate core provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act to expedite seismic airgun surveys and other industrial activities in the ocean at the expense of marine mammals and other ocean wildlife.
At the same time, as part of the administration’s push to promote fossil fuels, the Commerce and Interior Departments propose to roll back safeguards for whales, dolphins and other marine mammals.
We cannot stand by and allow the oil and gas industry to gut these protections today, like industry gutted whale, dolphin and seal populations decades ago. It is more important now than ever before to defend marine mammals — and to save the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Lee Talbot, Ph.D., was an author of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Talbot is a professor at George Mason University and an ecologist and geographer with over 50 years experience in national and international environmental affairs.