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Dogfish are reeled in on a fishing boat off the coast of Vancouver Island on Sept. 26, 2012. A prominent U.S. environmental group is targeting seafood imports from Canada.JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

A prominent U.S. environmental group is targeting seafood imports from countries that don't follow American fishing standards – and Canada is on its hit list.

The criticism is in a report released Tuesday by the Natural Resources Defence Council, which is lobbying the U.S. administration to start enforcing a domestic law that bans imports from countries that fail to apply American sea-mammal protection rules.

The report comes as the U.S. weighs regulatory changes that could result in more stringent enforcement of an existing law governing U.S. fisheries imports. Since Canada is the second-largest fish exporter to the U.S. after China, with $2.5-billion worth shipped per year, any regulatory revamp could be felt across the border.

The document says 650,000 sea mammals are killed each year, while nearly all fish imported into the U.S. come from countries – including Canada – that fail to provide similar protections or don't meet American reporting guidelines.

The news release accompanying the report proclaimed a "marine mammal massacre," listing about a dozen foreign culprits in the unintentional maiming or killing of sea animals that get caught in fishing equipment – known as bycatch.

In Canada's case, the report says whales and harbour porpoises are dying because fisheries on the East Coast, notably those that produce crab and lobster, don't use the same catching techniques.

The U.S. fishing industry was on hand at Tuesday's news conference, where Acy Cooper, a Louisiana shrimp fisherman, described how he spent $2,000 for nets that complied with the U.S. law and had been forced to surrender eight to 10 per cent of his catch to avoid harming sea mammals.

Foreign fishers should be playing by the same, costlier rules, said Cooper, who is also vice-president of the Louisiana Shrimpers Association.

"They can catch them for a lot cheaper, put 'em on our market, and drive our prices down," Cooper said. "That makes us go down, and our communities suffer because our prices are not up."

If the rest of the world isn't required to meet similar requirements, "then we're going to lose this industry," he added.

Cooper said his fellow fishers can be fined up to $10,000 for a first offence if their nets miss the allowed range by an angle of five degrees or more. They can lose their boats and be fined up to $50,000 for a second offence.

In an e-mail Tuesday, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said it is indeed in the process of revising rules so that they might more stringently apply domestic regulations.

The agency would not speculate on a time frame, but Zak Smith, a lawyer for the council and co-author of the report, expressed hope that new regulations might be imminent.

"We do know, just from talking to people, that they're in the works, that they're circulating within the government, and that we would hope for something in the first half of this year," Smith said.

Any new regulations should force importers to prove, like U.S. companies are already required to do, that protective measures are being used and that they're being monitored for compliance with regulations, he added.

The report said the volume of mammal bycatch fell about 30 per cent – to 4,356 in 2006 – after the U.S. adopted domestic guidelines in the 1990s to enforce its Nixon-era Marine Mammal Protection Act.

But the provisions related to imports, which comprise more than 90 per cent of the fish consumed in the U.S., have never been respected.

In the case of one mammal, the endangered North American right whale, the report said interactions with fishing gear accounted for at least 1.8 whale deaths per year – a trend which would, it calculated, guarantee the species' extinction.

Harbour porpoises are dying in far greater overall numbers, with up to 2,900 snared by fishing equipment each year, and also face the risk of extinction.

Canada, meanwhile, is not playing its part, the report said.

"[In the U.S.], groundlines are required to sink during certain times and in certain areas to reduce large whale entanglement. Canadian fishers have no such requirements," it said.

"The [U.S. National Marine] Fisheries Service also requires lobstermen to use weak links designed to break free under the pressure exerted by a whale, a requirement not imposed on Canadian lobstermen."

The Canadian government, which is reviewing the report, did not immediately comment on its findings.

The Natural Resources Defence Council is one of the more influential environmental NGOs in the United States, with $182.8-million in net assets according to its latest available tax filing.

Later Tuesday, the Canadian government responded that it would seek to avoid "unnecessary and unjustified actions" against domestic fisheries.

It said it would continue to stress to American counterparts the measures taken to protect sea mammals. For instance, it said Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans participates in aerial surveys above spots known for right-whale concentration.

It said a hotline has been set up to report such whale sightings, and fish harvesters have agreed not to set gear in sensitive areas.

To boot, the seasonal dimension to the lobster fishery is key, it said.

"The Bay of Fundy lobster fishery takes place in the winter when right whales are typically not present, [but] the industry has developed a mitigation strategy to avoid interactions between right whales and lobster gear. DFO is a partner in this initiative," said an e-mail from the department.

The e-mail also touted the federal Species at Risk Act, which includes the right whale and restricts certain commercial fishing activities in order to protect it.

As part of that act, the Canadian government is working to develop additional protections with Canadian and U.S. researchers who comprise the Right Whale Recovery Network, said the e-mail.

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