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The HSUS Criticizes Federal Agency’s Decision to Delay Protecting Porpoises in Atlantic Waters

Deaths of harbor porpoises imminent as key migration season to begin

The Humane Society of the United States criticizes a decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service that will lead to additional deaths of fall-migrating harbor porpoises by delaying closure of gillnet fishing in an area off the New England coast. Under pressure from the commercial fishing industry, the federal agency will not put the closure in effect Oct. 1 as required by the agency’s own regulations.  

The area is in waters off the coast of New Hampshire and Northern Massachusetts and is heavily used by the porpoises during their seasonal migration. In this area, porpoises are killed in large numbers when they become entangled in the invisible gillnets commercial fishermen set to catch fish such as cod, flounder and dogfish. Federal regulations require the seasonal use of acoustic devices known as “pingers,” which attach to nets and emit a high-frequency sound to alert porpoises to potential danger in their paths. Because of low compliance with the requirement in the Coastal Gulf of Maine Closure Area and a high number of porpoise deaths, the area was to be closed for 60 days during the fall migration. Compliance with the regulation is high in other areas.  

“The National Marine Fisheries Service is legally responsible under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to protect harbor porpoises,” said Sharon Young, marine issues field director for The HSUS. “The agency’s step back from its own regulations and retreat from a compromise plan between the commercial fishing industry and environmental groups may lead to a larger number of porpoise deaths this fall.”  

In 2007, when government regulators discovered that commercial fishermen were failing to use pingers properly, fishermen and environmental groups, including The HSUS, reached a compromise in which the industry agreed to abide by mandates to use pingers or face a closure if porpoise mortality remained unacceptably high. This agreement became a federal regulation that NMFS is now disregarding.  


  • Harbor porpoises, the smallest marine mammal on the East Coast, migrate seasonally between summer feeding areas in the Bay of Fundy and wintering areas off the mid-Atlantic Coast.

  • Both scientific studies and day-to-day use of acoustic pingers by fishermen have demonstrated that proper use can decrease deaths of porpoises by as much as 90 percent.

  • Death from entanglement in gillnets is the biggest threat porpoises face.  A 2011 federal assessment along the East Coast counted 30,000 fewer harbor porpoises compared to a count five years prior.

  • Another federal report found that more than 40 percent of gillnet commercial fishermen in the Northern Gulf of Maine did not use pingers as required and, as a result, deaths of porpoises were high. The report also found that during the same time period fewer deaths of harbor porpoises resulted off Cape Cod and in the mid-Atlantic, largely because the fishermen in those areas used pingers as required.

Media Contact: Rebecca Basu: 240-753-4875, rbasu@humanesociety.org

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