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Marine Mammal Protection Act

Have you ever felt threatened by intruders breaking into your residence? It happens with us all the time. Human activities such as commercial shipping, petroleum exploration, coastal development, waste dumping, harvesting our kind for commercial or subsistence purposes, ocean acidification, and the rising noise level and temperatures in the ocean have impacted our lives and habitats.

We are collectively known as marine mammals since we rely on the ocean and other marine ecosystems. Some of our kind include seals, whales, manatees, sea otters, and polar bears. We are an informal group; however, we are unified by our reliance on marine environments for feeding and survival. We are classified into four different taxonomic groups: cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises), pinnipeds (seals, sea lions, and walruses), sirenians (manatees and dugongs), and marine fissipeds (polar bears and sea otters). Humans have described 130 species of our kind living in the earth’s oceans.

Pair of common dolphins | Photo Courtesy by Caroline Weir

We, marine mammals, support humans and the ecosystem in several ways. We provide food and fur to humans and play critical ecological roles as both predators and prey. For instance, some sea otters are classic examples of keystone species, since their presence affects the ecosystem more profoundly than their size and number suggest. We have worked to fight against global warming by creating biological pumps, also known as carbon marine carbon pump, (the set of processes by which inorganic carbon, e.g. carbon dioxide, is fixed into organic matter via photosynthesis and then sequestered away from the atmosphere generally by transport into the deep ocean) in the ocean that counteract some damaging impacts of global warming. We can sequester carbon through a range of natural processes that include storing carbon in our bodies, excreting carbon-rich waste products that sink into the deep sea, and fertilizing or supporting marine plants and algae. Despite us helping humans in these many ways, due to exploitation (hunting, killing, capture), ocean traffic and fisheries, habitat loss, and degradation, our population is threatened.

Biological Pump | Photo Courtesy by Hugh W. Ducklow , Deborah K. Steinberg, and Ken O. Buesseler

The genuine fear of human activities causing the depletion or even extinction of us sparked a high alarm for change in the halls of Congress. And on October 21st, 1972, an unexpected event happened that gave us all new hope – the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA) was passed under President Richard Nixon to help establish and implement better protections for us that call U.S. water home.

The primary objective of the MMPA is to:

  • Prevent marine mammal species and stocks from diminishing because they are no longer a significant functioning part of their ecosystems.

  • Restore diminished species and stocks to their optimum sustainable populations.

The U.S. Department of Commerce, through NOAA Fisheries, is charged with protecting whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals, and sea lions. Through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, walrus, manatees, sea otters, and polar bears are protected by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is responsible for regulating marine mammals in zoos and aquariums under the Animal Welfare Act.

The MMPA prohibits the taking and importation of marine mammals and marine mammal products, where "take" means to harass, feed, hunt, capture, or kill any marine mammal or attempt to do so. However, exceptions to that prohibition may be made for:

  • Pre-MMPA specimens were taken before December 21st, 1972.

  • International agreements were entered by the United States before December 21st, 1972.

  • Alaska native subsistence harvesting.

  • Scientific research, public display, enhancing the survival or recovery of a species, and incidental take in commercial fisheries.

  • Waivers granted by the U.S. government.

This critical law proved a game-changer for us and is certainly worth celebrating. Even after 45 years in place, the MMPA still plays a significant role in protecting us. By 2022, the MMPA will require the U.S to ban imports of seafood that kill marine mammals at a level above what is sent in the U.S. for allowable bycatch. You can continue to ensure more responsible fisheries practices and develop ways to better protect us and our habitats. You can be a part of this incredible act by being aware of what you eat where they source your seafood (for restaurants you can check Seafood Watch App). Also, you can show a little appreciation by posting our pictures in your social media accounts or simply sharing our photos to tell others how much we brighten up your world. To learn more about us or help protect us, you can also join hands with your local non-profits such as OC Habitats, Pacific Marine Mammal Center, Laguna Ocean Foundation, and the Ocean Institute.

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