The US Marine Mammal Commission, an organisation charged with restoring mammal populations in the world’s oceans, is set for the chop in president Donald Trump’s latest budget proposal.
The budget, released on 23 May, includes a 16 per cent cut to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s bodies and agencies. This would close down the MMC, an independent federal agency, which costs around US$3.41 million a year, or around one penny per American.
The Maryland-based commission sees itself as a “one-stop shop” for marine mammal science and policies, says its chairman Daryl Boness. The commission reviews human activities in the ocean -including shipping, military drills and fossil fuel extraction – and uses the latest science to ascertain the impact of such activities on marine mammals.
“The commission’s role as an oversight agency on all issues related to marine mammals is unique; no one else in the world meets this mandate,” Boness told the New Scientist. “This service to the public, marine mammals and their ecosystem would end.”
The MMC was established in 1972. Its own small-scale science projects cover topics such developing fishing nets that catch fewer mammals, and Whale Alert app to help sailors avoid whales and to alert authorities to injured or distressed whales.
The commission looks after the stocks of many threatened American sea mammals, including such iconic species as the Hawaiian monk seal, Florida manatees, beluga whales, orcas and polar bears. For example, in April it hosted a summit with researchers, industry representatives and politicians to reduce the entanglement of North Atlantic right whales in fishing gear.
Uproar over irreplaceable agency
News of the commission’s possible demise has caused uproar among conservationists around the world. Ingrid Biedron, a marine scientist at international ocean protection group Oceana, says no other organisation can fill the MMC’s footsteps.
“By law, the commission has access to all federal studies and data related to marine mammals, and by law, other federal agencies are required to consider and respond to the commission’s recommendations,” Biedron explains. “This is not the case for academic experts on marine mammals.”
Other marine agencies are also at risk under the 2018 budget proposal. The National Marine Fisheries Service would lose $22m off its Fisheries Research and Management Program, while its protected species programme would lose $7m and, according to Oceana, become effectively unable to carry out its responsibilities.
Boness says the cuts are a blow to America’s “strong environmental ethic”. He worries that, without the MMC, marine exploitation will continue “without the necessary checks and balances that help to ensure that those activities are done in the most environmentally conscientious way possible”.