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Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972

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Title: Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972  
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Subject: Hawaiian monk seal, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Tuna-Dolphin GATT Case (I and II), List of captive orcas, Whitecoat
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Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972

One species of marine mammal: the Stellar sea lion - this haul rests on rocks located on Amak Island.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA) was the first act of the United States Congress to call specifically for an ecosystem approach to natural resource management and conservation. It was signed into law on October 21, 1972 (and took effect 60 days later on December 21, 1972) by President Richard Nixon. MMPA prohibits the taking of marine mammals, and enacts a moratorium on the import, export, and sale of any marine mammal, along with any marine mammal part or product within the United States. The Act defines "take" as "the act of hunting, killing, capture, and/or harassment of any marine mammal; or, the attempt at such." The MMPA defines harassment as "any act of pursuit, torment or annoyance which has the potential to either: a. injure a marine mammal in the wild, or b. disturb a marine mammal by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, which includes, but is not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering." The MMPA provides for enforcement of its prohibitions, and for the issuance of regulations to implement its legislative goals.

Marine mammal management

Authority to manage the MMPA was divided between the Secretary of the Interior through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), and the Secretary of Commerce, which is delegated to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Subsequently, a third Federal agency, the Marine Mammal Commission (MMC), was established to review existing policies and make recommendations to the Service and the NOAA better implement the MMPA. Coordination between these three Federal agencies is necessary in order to provide the best management practices for marine mammals.

Under the MMPA, the Service is responsible for ensuring the protection of sea otters and marine otters, walruses, polar bears, three species of manatees, and dugongs. NOAA was given responsibility to conserve and manage pinnipeds including seals and sea lions and cetaceans such as whales and dolphins.

Marine mammal permits and international coordination

The MMPA prohibits the take and exploitation of any marine mammal without appropriate authorization, which may only be given by the Service. Permits may be issued for scientific research, public display, and the importation/exportation of marine mammal parts and products upon determination by the Service that the issuance is consistent with the MMPA’s regulations. The two types of permits issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service's Office of Protected Resources are incidental and directed. Incidental permits, which allow for some unintentional taking of small numbers of marine mammal, are granted to U.S. citizens who engage in a specified activity other than commercial fishing in a specified geographic area. Directed permits are required for any proposed marine mammal scientific research activity that involves taking marine mammals.

Applications for such permits are reviewed and issued the Service's Division of Management Authority, through the International Affairs office. This office also houses the Division of International Conservation, which is directly responsible for coordinating international activities for marine mammal species found in both U.S. and International waters, or are absent from U.S. waters. Marine mammal species inhabiting both U.S. and International waters include the West Indian manatee, sea otter, polar bear, and Pacific walrus. Species not present in U.S. waters include the West African and Amazonian manatee, dugong, Atlantic walrus, and marine otter.

Marine mammal conservation in the field

In efforts to conserve and manage marine mammal species, the Service has appointed field staff dedicated to working with partners to conduct population censuses, assess population health, develop and implement conservation plans, promulgate regulations, and create cooperative relationships internationally.

Various Marine Mammal Management offices are located on either coast. The Service's Marine Mammal Management office in Anchorage, Alaska is responsible for the management and conservation of polar bears, Pacific walruses, and northern sea otters in Alaska. Northern sea otters present in Washington State are managed by the Western Washington Field Office, while southern sea otters residing in California are managed by the Ventura Field Office. West Indian manatee populations extend from Texas to Rhode Island, and are also present in the Caribbean Sea; however, this species is most prevalent near Florida (the Florida subspecies) and Puerto Rico (the Antillean subspecies). The Service’s Jacksonville Field Office manages the Florida manatee, while the Boqueron Field Office manages the Antillean manatee.

The polar bear, southern sea otter, marine otter, all three species of manatees, and the dugong are also concurrently listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).


Amendments enacted in 1981 established conditions for permits to be granted to take marine mammals "incidentally" in the course of commercial fishing. In addition, the amendments provided additional conditions and procedures for transferring management authority to the States, and authorized appropriations through FY 1984.

Policies created in 1982

  • Some marine mammal species or stocks may be in danger of extinction or depletion as a result of human activities.
  • These species or stocks must not be permitted to fall below their optimum sustainable population level (depleted)
  • Measures should be taken to replenish these species or stocks
  • There is inadequate knowledge of the ecology and population dynamics
  • Marine mammals have proven to be resources of great international significance.

The 1984 amendments established conditions to be satisfied as a basis for importing fish and fish products from nations engaged in harvesting yellowfin tuna with purse seines and other commercial fishing technology, as well as authorized appropriations for agency activities through FY 1988.

Amended in 1988

  • the establishment of conditions and procedures for the Secretaries of Commerce and Interior to review the status of populations to determine if they should be listed as "depleted" (below optimal, sustainable population numbers or listed as threatened or endangered);
  • the preparation of conservation plans for any species listed as depleted, including a requirement that such plans be modeled after recovery plans developed pursuant to the Endangered Species Act;
  • the listing of conditions under which permits may be issued to take marine mammals for the protection and welfare of the animals, including importation, public display, scientific research, and enhancing the survival or recovery of a species; and
  • a reward system under which the Secretary of the Treasury can pay up to $2500 to individuals providing information leading to convictions for violations of the Act.

Amended in 1995

  • Certain exceptions to the take prohibitions, such as for Alaska Native subsistence and permits and authorizations for scientific research;
  • A program to authorize and control the taking of marine mammals incidental to commercial fishing operations;
  • Preparation of stock assessments for all marine mammal stocks in waters under U.S. jurisdiction; and
  • Studies of pinniped-fishery interactions.


Congress found that: all species and population stocks of marine mammals are, or may be, in danger of extinction or depletion due to human activities; these mammals should not

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