- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 13, 2006

Congressional Republicans may be handing Democrats a baseball bat and asking to be bashed on the head with it. That’s the case with the misguided attempt to delete the “Dolphin Deadline” from the landmark Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Legislation proposed by Republican House Resources Chairman Richard Pombo of California (H.R. 4075) is reportedly on track to see action on the House floor in May — and the Republican leadership would be well advised to let this bill quietly drop.

Regardless of which side of the political divide you’re on, dolphins and whales are cherished and loved by Americans. Aside from having a scientifically crucial place in the oceans’ ecosystems, providing unique recreational experiences for thousands of ocean visitors, and generating millions of dollars for local communities, marine mammals simply have a special place in our hearts. Just ask any 5-year-old.

It’s this unique fascination that led us as a nation more than 30 years ago to protect marine mammals from harm by human activities, like commercial fishing. We enshrined that national consensus in law, enacting the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

A key element in the Marine Mammal Protection Act is the “Dolphin Deadline” of April 30, 2001, set by Congress for commercial fisheries to reduce to insignificant levels the death and serious injury of marine mammals caused by their operations. But now, five years past the deadline, the government still has not met that goal, and each year approximately 2,000 more dolphins, whales and other marine mammals are killed unnecessarily.

We have seen countless TV images of whales in distress, thrashing in fishing lines wrapped around their bodies while they float prostrate before Coast Guard cutters helpless to free them. We have seen photos of dolphins drowned because they became tangled in fishing nets and couldn’t come up for air. And we have watched seals grab bait from long-line fishing boats and get hooks lodged deep in their throats. Who — Republican or Democrat — wants to be known for looking the other way when Flipper was on the hook?

This is not a partisan issue. This is not a traditional environmental issue that pits private property rights against conservation concerns. No one owns the ocean. We just have the collective responsibility to keep our oceans healthy enough so they can provide future generations food, economic prosperity and the joy of sharing this planet with wonderful creatures like dolphins.

When Congress originally decided dolphins and whales should be protected and commercial fishing should stop harming them, it also knew it would not happen without a deadline. And to further strengthen our ability to protect dolphins and whales, the Bush administration in 2004 went even further and created, for the first time, a clear scientific definition of what it means to reduce the catch of marine mammals to insignificant levels.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Dolphin Deadline are unique because they protect healthy populations of mammals before they are in trouble. Unlike other laws that only take effect when it is almost too late for recovery, the Marine Mammal Protection Act seeks to prevent our ocean wildlife from ever reaching a crisis.

Yet now, instead of fixing the Dolphin Deadline and working harder to achieve it, some members of Congress simply want to take it away. While it is hard to believe anyone would willfully sanction the continued killing of dolphins and whales, House Republicans are likely to make that exact choice this month. With all the pollsters at their beck and call, they ought to know Americans still care about dolphins and whales.

This is an case where good policy and good politics can come together. It is to be hoped the House Republicans will reach the same conclusion and we all can agree dolphins should not be the catch of the day.

Andrew Sharpless is chief executive officer of Oceana, a nonprofit advocacy organization.

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