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Hundreds of thousands of marine mammals are injured or killed each year by fishermen around the world. And because most seafood in the U.S. is imported, the fish on American tables isn't as dolphin-friendly as you might expect. Well now, under pressure from conservation groups, federal regulators are working to change that, as NPR's Richard Harris reports.

RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: There was a time, more than 40 years ago, when U.S. fishermen killed millions of dolphins while fishing for tuna. After a public backlash, fishermen figured out how to minimize that so-called by-catch. Not so much for fishermen in other parts of the world, who continue to kill not just dolphins but seals and even whales. So conservation groups like the Center for Biological Diversity have been pressing for stricter standards on imports.

Zak Smith, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says new regulations are now in the works.

ZAK SMITH: So we thought this would be a good time to look at, well, what benefit we would get from enforcement of this; what are the species at harm; what regions of the world are particularly problematic for marine mammal by-catch?

HARRIS: NRDC has just released its analysis of this. It finds many species of dolphin, seal and sea lion at risk, even endangered species like the North Atlantic right whale.

SMITH: It is at risk from Canada's lobster and crabbing practices. There's the New Zealand sea lion, Mediterranean sperm whale...

HARRIS: Manatees, rare porpoises - the list goes on. And the global tally of injuries and deaths due to fishing practices is high. Biologists have estimated that 650,000 marine mammals are killed or injured each year. Of that, 300,000 are dolphins and related cetaceans.

SMITH: Three hundred fifty thousand is pinnipeds, so you've got your sea lions and seals who are impacted there as well.

HARRIS: Smith says under federal law - the Marine Mammal Protection Act - fish imported into the United States must meet the same high standards for protecting those animals as is required of local fishermen. It's a black-and-white requirement, and he says it's not simply enough for a country to have rules on the books.

SMITH: You have to prove it. And the only way you can prove it, like the way we prove it in the United States, is that you have an observer program that goes out on the fishing vessels and does a sample, and looks at how many marine mammals are being captured.

HARRIS: That's not common practice elsewhere in the world, and it's not cheap. But Rebecca Lent, executive director of the federal Marine Mammal Commission, says there's a lot at stake.

REBECCA LENT: I think for certain species in certain regions, it is a threat that can lead to extinction.

HARRIS: Over the years, the United States has made progress in reducing this worldwide toll; for example, by cracking down on imports of tuna that were caught with practices that kill dolphins, and by pressing nations to stop the indiscriminate practice of drift-net fishing.

LENT: The rest of the story, as U.S. imports have quadrupled, has been: What about these other products that we're importing?

HARRIS: Lent says it will take time for the federal fisheries agency to develop those new rules. And she expects them to be phased in gradually so fishermen around the world will have time to adjust. Nina Young, who is working on those new regulations at NOAA fisheries, says the issue is one of fairness to American fishermen who are already following the rules.

NINA YOUNG: Clearly, our objective here is to level the playing field for our domestic fishermen.

HARRIS: And while rules for imports can certainly have an impact, Young says they won't stop the killing of marine mammals.

YOUNG: There are a lot of animals that are killed in artisanal fisheries, where the product is never exported into the United States.

HARRIS: In particular, subsistence fishermen in Asia, who string gill nets along the shore to catch fish and whatever else happens into those nets.

YOUNG: Our ability through this regulation, to address that particular issue is severely limited.

HARRIS: But tougher import rules will help, and help Americans shop for seafood with less worry about whether a seal or dolphin or a whale was collateral damage.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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