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Saving Harbor Porpoises

Protecting these shy marine mammals from stranding or dying in nets is a long-term commitment

The Humane Society of the United States

harbor porpoise killed by fishing net


By Sharon Young

How do you save a harbor porpoise? Let me count the ways (and the ways that The HSUS tries to help them).

Stranded Porpoises

If dolphins and porpoises become ill, they may move into shallow waters to try to make it easier to breathe, and they can become stranded. Federally licensed stranding networks are sometimes able to rescue and rehabilitate them.

In the 1990s I was a member of a stranding network in Cape Cod and went to the beaches to assist at strandings. Listening to the distress cries is heart-wrenching but it is heart-warming to watch a healthy porpoise released into the ocean, hearing the soft "puff" of her breath as she swims off.

Since coming to The HSUS 16 years ago, I’ve worked with our government affairs staff to increase funding for stranding networks, so they are more able to save lives and to study the causes of strandings. Most recently, we have been please to support legislation introduced by Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) to increase funding for stranding response.

Dead Porpoises

How can you save a dead porpoise? You can’t. But you can try to keep the same thing from happening to other porpoises.

Entanglement and drowning in fishing nets is a leading cause of death for harbor porpoises throughout the world—it kills tens of thousands each year. I’ve been appointed to federal task forces that work with fishermen to devise ways to reduce marine mammal deaths.

When all else fails, I collaborate with The HSUS’s Animal Protection Litigation section attorneys to ensure that the government follows its own laws, such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In 1999, more than 2,000 porpoises died in nets set along the U.S. east coast. When the federal government dragged its feet in fulfilling its legal obligation to safeguard the porpoises, we filed suit and won. Once the government started requiring fishermen to outfit nets with acoustic "pingers" that warned harbor porpoises, that death toll dropped dramatically.

But then the government backed off on enforcement, and the death toll began to climb again, reaching more than a thousand a year by 2005. So we stepped back in, and we’ve worked successfully with the National Marine Fisheries Service and fishermen to agree protect harbor porpoises by outfitting nets with pingers and closing certain areas to risk-prone fishing when harbor porpoises are migrating through in the largest numbers.

Future Porpoises

We are always on the alert for proposals to weaken regulations or laws that protect marine mammals, and we’re always searching for ways to make them stronger. Burning up the phone lines talking to regulators, pounding away at a computer keyboard to advocate for strict regulations, sitting in multi-day-long management meetings, and assisting in legal briefs may not be glamorous. But those are often the most effective means of protecting porpoises—and all animals. Our efforts in the past have helped save the lives of thousands of porpoises…and we will be no less vigilant in the future.

Sharon Young is marine issues field director at The HSUS.

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