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O’Regan: Marine Mammal Protection Under the Budget Ax

Saving dolphins has always been a nonpartisan issue.

The tragedy currently unfolding in the cold, muddy marshes of Cape Cod is deeply troubling to many Americans and has captured worldwide attention.

In just the past two weeks, more than 100 dolphins have been stranded on Massachusetts’ shores, some seemingly healthy, others already dead or dying from the traumatic experience. Trained rescuers, scientists and volunteers have worked tirelessly to save the dolphins and determine what is causing this massive, devastating stranding.

Scientists from the International Fund for Animal Welfare Marine Mammal Rescue and Research team have been able to respond quickly to these events, thanks to federal funding. However, these funds are now in jeopardy, just like the dolphins we are trying to save.

2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and, within it, the 20th anniversary of the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Act, which organizes the stranding networks nationwide and sets best practices for rescuers. This is a great achievement of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but there is concern that parts of the program essential to rescuing marine mammals and monitoring the health of these populations and their ocean habitat are now in danger of being cut from the budget.

The work of rescuers around the country relies heavily on the John H. Prescott stranding grant program. This relatively inexpensive and highly effective support was established in 2000 by Reps. Jim Saxton (R-N.J.) and Don Young (R-Alaska) as part of the Marine Mammal Protection Act amendments of 2000 signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

The Prescott program is now threatened with being cut from the budget, which could mean extinction for stranding networks across the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Without this successful program, scientists would not be able to readily respond to tragic strandings like the ones on Cape Cod or study the anthropogenic and natural threats to these sentinel species.

Another vital federal program struggling for survival is the Unusual Mortality Event program, which helps analyze increasing mortalities within marine mammal populations, such as the recent deaths of seals along the Northeast coast. It draws on experts from many disciplines to determine the cause of such events. There have been a record number of UMEs this year and the funds are almost gone, leaving the networks struggling to analyze samples to determine the causes of the events.

While the first victims may be marine mammals, emerging diseases spreading from animals to people, contaminated water and harmful algal blooms are all major threats to public health, making this program beneficial not only for charismatic, popular marine species, but for people too.

Since President Richard Nixon signed the MMPA into law four decades ago, saving marine mammals has been a bipartisan commitment. U.S. leadership in efforts to protect whales, seals and dolphins is a proud legacy that must be preserved.

On behalf of the millions of Americans around the country and across the political spectrum who want to see them protected, I urge you to add your voice in support of our nation’s marine mammal populations by protecting vital stranding rescue and mortality analysis programs. Marine mammals are an American legacy.

Fred O’Regan is president and CEO of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

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