By Heir Aislinn Clark
Marine mammals are mystical creatures, breathtakingly beautiful and unimaginably intelligent. Of all the animals in the ocean, they are the most like humans. They play critical roles in their ocean ecosystems, from keystone species to health indicators. An astonishing number of them are also endangered, including the Hawaiian monk seal, Pacific sea otter, and blue whale.
Stories are told of how dolphins help humans in danger at sea, pushing drowning victims to the surface or letting people ride on their backs to the shore. If dolphins can save our lives, don’t we have an obligation to help save them in return?
The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) was signed into law in 1972 and amended in 1994, and it was meant to do exactly what the name implies—protect marine mammals. According to the law, cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises), pinnipeds (seals and sea lions), sirenians (manatees and dugongs), polar bears, and sea otters within the waters of the United States of America are all to be protected from harassment, killing, or capture. Even though it has some flaws, this law has been critical in saving countless numbers of marine mammals. However, things are changing—for the worse.
A piece of legislation was introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives on June 29, 2017, that may undermine the MMPA and its ability to protect these important marine animals. Cleverly disguised as the SEA Act of 2017, this bill is not about protecting the sea. It’s really just a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Beneath the misleading acronym, the bill is really called the Streamlining Environmental Applications Act, and it intends to do some pretty rough stuff.
According to an informational memo provided by the California state Ocean Protection Council (OPC), the SEA Act and another related bill (H.R. 4239, the Strengthening the Economy with Critical Untapped Resources to Expand American Energy (SECURE Act)) “would make broad changes to long established federal laws protecting the marine environment from the effects of oil and gas exploration and development.” The SEA Act would also remove important protecting features from the MMPA, including the requirement that harassment is limited to “small numbers” of particular species. It would take away a key check on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) ability to grant Incidental Harassment Applications (IHAs), making it much easier to obtain one. It would also let marine mammals in a much broader area be harmed, allow corporations to cover up the cumulative impacts they’re creating, rush the permitting process and sometimes automatically approve permits. In some cases the SEA Act would even exempt IHA holders from complying with Endangered Species Act protections.
According to the official summary of the bill, it was created to “amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 to reduce unnecessary permitting delays by clarifying associated procedures to increase economic development and support coastal restoration programs, and for other purposes.”
However, Mark J. Palmer, associate director of the International Marine Mammals Project, a project of Earth Island Institute, thinks this push to fast-track permits is short-sighted. “Economic development can take place anytime,” Palmer explains. “The U.S. has the second highest level of economic development in the world — why does ‘economic development’ require us to ignore the protection of our planet’s resources and the life-giving processes that allow us to live?”
Without taking a closer look at this dangerous bill, you could easily be fooled by its name and goal. The SEA Act would eliminate many critically important safeguards that allow marine mammals and endangered species to recover from previous exploitation and remain plentiful.
On June 7, ten founding members of Heirs To Our Oceans went to Capitol Hill and met with 21 Congressional representatives and senators to urge them to oppose the SEA Act and SECURE Act and to promote laws that will support clean, renewable energy and help make our oceans healthier. A couple of days later, we participated in the March for the Oceans and presented at the rally afterwards. Several of us will also be attending the SuperPod6 conference on San Juan Island in Washington from July 15-20, where I will be talking about the importance of expanding, not undermining, the MMPA.
No matter your age, there are things that you can do, too, to stop the SEA Act from undermining our oceans. For example, Mr. Palmer says, “The entire House of Representatives and one-third of the U.S. Senate will be up for re-election this year, and voters can choose candidates that oppose weakening environmental standards and regulations.”
As kids, we can’t vote, but we can make sure our voices are heard. Whether you live on the coast or in the middle of the country, you can send letters to your representatives asking them to vote against the SEA and SECURE Acts, sign the petition by Sea Voice News on change.org, and tell your friends to do the same. This is our future, and we can’t let the SEA Act destroy our seas.