Marine mammals are animals that rely on the ocean for their survival. They vary widely in taxa, habitat, and behavior. Some are fully aquatic, such as manatees, while others depend on the sea primarily for feeding, like polar bears. Marine mammals play a vital role in maintaining the health and stability of marine ecosystems, particularly in the control of prey populations. Unfortunately, many marine mammal species are facing declines due to habitat loss and other anthropogenic impacts such as boat strikes and accidental by-catch (caught in the nets of fishermen fishing for other species).
Marine Mammal Protection Act
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 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). A third federal agency, the Marine Mammal Commission, was later established to review and make recommendations on the policies and actions of the Service and NMFS 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, three 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 is responsible for the conservation and management of pinnipeds other than walrus (i.e., seals and sea lions) and cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises).
The Service is no longer required to publish Annual Reports to Congress and the public on its MMPA activities; however, all historic reports remain available for reference.
Marine Mammal Conservation in the Field
The Service's Headquarters Office coordinates implementation of the MMPA; however, our major efforts to conserve and manage marine mammals occurs in the Field Offices. The Service has field staff dedicated to working iwth 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 occurs 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.
Learn more about international coordination for marine mammals.
Apply for a marine mammal permit.
Learn more about marine mammals protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Access the full library of documents related to marine mammals.
Wildlife and Habitat Conservation
- Conservation Planning