On Monday, the Trump administration announced that it was cancelling plans that would have protected whales, dolphins, and endangered sea turtles from high levels of drowning deaths in drift gillnets set off the California coast. The most puzzling thing about this announcement is that the fishery itself had supported the plan. It’s yet one more example of politicians taking more extreme positions than industry — akin to the case of several farm-state attorneys general fighting California’s anti-confinement laws for laying hens even after the egg industry recognized that it must transition to a cage-free future.
The marine-animal protection plan was the result of negotiations between environmentalists and fishermen. It would have capped the annual number of deaths by species and then temporarily closed the fishery if these mortality caps were exceeded. This joint agreement was something of a triumph for all parties, and the Pacific Fisheries Management Council—the federal management body for west coast fisheries—agreed to put the agreement into writing and forward it to the National Marine Fisheries Service in the Department of Commerce for approval. It is fairly rare that a regional fishery-management council’s proposal would be overruled by bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. When the federal government sought public comments on the plan in October last year, shortly before the election, it attracted widespread support (including from The HSUS) and little dissent. But, in a baffling turnaround, the Department of Commerce has now stamped the plan with a giant “NO.” The agency is overruling its own fishery management council as well as the fisheries that agreed to the plan, along with the countless citizens who weighed in and overwhelmingly favored this new, conservation-minded legal framework.
To be clear, the administration is saying “no” to proactively protecting endangered leatherback turtles, and it is saying “no” to a plan that would have limited the entanglement-related deaths of endangered sperm whales. In fact, it was the deaths of sperm whales that prompted the Council to take this step when it became convinced that the Department of Commerce had not acted intentionally to prevent future deaths.
Marine mammals remain some of the most beloved creatures in the country. Sperm whales are legend, especially since the publication of Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick 166 years ago. Dolphins are revered, with scientists documenting their intelligence and mariners recounting their acts of heroism to save sailors. Leatherback sea turtles, whose mass can exceed half a ton, are a sight to behold for land-based tourists and underwater divers and contribute immensely to the economy of coastal communities. These creatures do warrant special protection. When the fishery that has threatened them and the environmental and animal welfare community that have advocated for them find common ground, politicians and executive agencies should rush to bless the outcome. We have enough division in the country without searching for and sowing disunity where it doesn’t exist.