By HOPE YEN
Associated Press Writer
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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Bush administration has failed to provide protections required by law to more than a dozen marine mammals potentially at risk of death or injury due to commercial fishing, congressional investigators said Wednesday.
The report by the Government Accountability Office assessed the National Marine Fisheries Service, which identifies potentially endangered animals such as whales and dolphins that can become entangled in fishing gear or lobster traps. It found that out of 30 marine mammals deserving protection under federal guidelines, the agency had failed to set up teams of experts to provide protection for 14 of them.
According to the GAO, the fisheries service was generally aware it needed to take protective measures for the additional mammals, which included the Hawaiian stock of false killer whales and the Central North Pacific stock of humpback whales. But it had not done so because officials said they either had faulty data and lacked money to obtain better information, or believed factors other than commercial fishing were to blame.
The GAO also said the fisheries service generally lacked a "comprehensive strategy" for assessing the effectiveness of its animal protection measures and often missed deadlines to set up teams and devise safety plans.
The report urged Congress to have the fisheries service report on any data limitations. Lawmakers should also consider steps to ensure the agency complies with federal law, it said.
The fisheries service "faces a very large, complex and difficult task in trying to protect marine mammals from incidental mortality and serious injury during the course of commercial fishing operations," investigators wrote.
The GAO report comes a day after President George W. Bush designated what he called "three beautiful and biologically diverse areas of the Pacific Ocean" as national marine monuments in what was the largest marine conservation effort in history. Bush used his announcement to broadly defend his environmental record.
"For an administration that is desperately trying to create a legacy of ocean stewardship before leaving office, it is disappointing to hear that they have dropped the ball on reducing incidental deaths of mammals due to commercial fishing," said Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va. He is chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, which requested the GAO report.