Marine Mammals
Ecological Services
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Photo of a walrus

The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), enacted in 1972, was the first legislation that called for an ecosystem approach to natural resource management and conservation. The MMPA prohibits the take (i.e., hunting, killing, capture, and /or harassment) of marine mammals, and enacts a moratorium on the import, export, and sale of marine mammal parts and products. There are exemptions and exceptions to the prohibitions. For example, Alaska Natives may hunt marine mammals for subsistence purposes, and may possess, transport, and sell marine mammal parts and products. An exception is available for entities that apply for and are granted authorization for the incidental take of marine mammals during the course of an otherwise legal activity.

Marine Mammal Management

Authority to manage marine mammals was divided between the Department of the Interior (delegated to the Fish and Wildlife Service) and the Department of Commerce (delegated to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). A third Federal agency, the Marine Mammal Commission (MMC), was later established to review and make recommendations on the policies and actions of the Service and NOAA related to their implementation of the MMPA. Coordination among these agencies is a must in order to provide the best management practices for marine mammals.

The Service was given authority to implement the MMPA for the conservation and management of sea and marine otters, walrus, polar bear, 3 species of manatees, and dugong. The Service's regulations for implementation of the MMPA can be found at 50 CFR Part 18. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA-Fisheries) was given the responsibility to conserve and manage pinnipeds other than walrus (i.e., seals and sea lions) and cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises).

The Washington Office Marine Mammal Program coordinates the Service's implementation of the MMPA internally and externally with our partners. The Program responsibilities include clearing regulations and other notices for publication, developing and advocating for policies and legislative positions, and communicating with partner agencies and stakeholders. The Service is no longer required to publish Annual Reports to Congress and the public on its' MMPA activities; however, the last published reports (1997, 1998, and 1999-2000) are available for reference.

Marine Mammal Permits and International Coordination

The MMPA prohibits the take and importation of any marine mammal without appropriate authorization. Permits may be issued for scientific research, public display, and import/export of marine mammal parts and products upon determination by the Service that the issuance is consistent with the MMPA and our regulations. Application for these permits are reviewed and issued by the Service's Division of Management Authority, which is part of the International Affairs office. This office also houses the Division of International Conservation, which is responsible for coordinating international activities for those marine mammal species that are found in either the United States and International waters or are not found in U.S. waters at all. Species with ranges that traverse U.S. and international waters include the West Indian manatee, sea otter, polar bear, and Pacific walrus. Marine mammal species not found in U.S. waters include the West African and Amazonian manatee, dugong, Atlantic walrus, and marine otter.

Marine Mammal Conservation in the Field

In our efforts to conserve and manage our marine mammal species, the Service has field staff dedicated to working with our partners to conduct population censuses, assess population health, develop and implement conservation plans, promulgate regulations, and create cooperative relationships.
The Service's Marine Mammals Management office in Anchorage, Alaska, has the responsibility to manage and conserve polar bears, Pacific walruses, and northern sea otters in Alaska. Northern sea otters are also found in Washington State and are managed by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Office. Southern sea otters, which occur in California, are managed by the Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office. The West Indian manatee can be found from Texas to Rhode Island and into the Caribbean Sea; however, in waters within the U.S., the species mostly occur in Florida (the Florida subspecies) and Puerto Rico (the Antillean subspecies). The Service's North Florida Ecological Services Office in Jacksonville manages the Florida manatee and the Caribbean Ecological Services Field Office in Boquerón manages the Antillean manatee.

Currently, the polar bear, one stock of northern sea otter, southern sea otter, marine otter, all three species of manatees, and the dugong are also listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The Pacific walrus is a candidate for listing under the ESA. You can link to the Service's Endangered Species Program for more information about the ESA.
Last updated: September 22, 2014

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