Environmental activists are trying to stop Congress from passing a bill that they say would leave dolphins and other marine mammals vulnerable to unregulated commercial fishing practices.
The environmental group Oceana opposes the current form of the Marine Mammal Protection Act because lawmakers have removed a provision called the "dolphin deadline."
The deadline language originally was included in the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1994. It set April 30, 2001, as a deadline for commercial fishers to reduce to "insignificant levels" the death and serious injury of animals caused by their operations.
Oceana said the deadline has not been enforced and estimates that 2,000 dolphins, whales and other marine mammals are killed annually as a result.
The House Resources Committee, which removed the dolphin deadline language, questions Oceana's motives.
"The dolphin deadline is nothing more than lawsuit bait for groups like Oceana," committee spokeswoman Melissa DeLaney said. "Litigation is not an effective means of conservation. On the contrary, it hinders the agency's attempt to implement important conservation measures for marine mammals."
Beth Lowell, Oceana's ocean wildlife advocate, denied that her group is motivated by potential lawsuits.
Though the deadline has passed, Oceana wants to give the commercial fishing industry more time to comply. "We want commercial fisheries to achieve this goal," Ms. Lowell said.
"Why would someone want to totally remove the deadline to reduce the amount of marine mammals injured or killed in commercial fishing operations?" Ms. Lowell said. "Congress should consider restarting the clock on the deadline since the administration has finally defined what it means to reach the zero mortality rate goal."
The White House has said that up to 10 percent of a species's population may be killed or used for commercial purposes before it begins to have a negative effect on that species's environmental sustainability.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act could come up for a vote as early as next week. House Resources Committee members said they are working with all interested parties to ensure the protection of marine life.
"We're hopeful that we can move this bill to the floor this year and are working with Democrats in order to do so," Ms. DeLaney said.
Oceana and 22 other leading environmental organizations have sent a letter to Congress urging members to either keep the marine mammal protections in place or oppose the bill altogether. Other organizations signed on to the letter include the Humane Society International, Greenpeace USA and the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"Congress understands the need to limit the number of wild animals killed on land, so it's not a stretch of the imagination to want to limit the number killed or injured in the ocean," Ms. Lowell said.