The Marine Mammal Protection Act provides for the protection and conservation of all marine mammals within the waters of the Unites States.

Background: The U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) was enacted in 1972 in response to increasing concerns that some species of marine mammals were in danger of extinction or depletion as a result of human activities such as overhunting, overfishing and unscrupulous trade. The Act set forth a national policy to protect all marine mammal species and their habitats in an effort to maintain sustainable populations. The MMPA was the first legislation of U.S. Congress to mandate an ecosystem approach to natural resource management and conservation.

Operation: The Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits the “take” of marine mammals in U.S. waters, unless the take is authorized by the designated U.S. regulatory authorities. This means people may not harass, hunt, capture or kill any marine mammal, regardless of the species’ population status. In addition, the MMPA also makes it illegal to import, export or sell marine mammals and any marine mammal parts or products. The MMPA protects all species of marine mammals, including cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises), pinnipeds (seals and sea lions), sirenians (manatees and dugongs), sea otters and polar bears within the waters of the United States.

The MMPA provides for prohibitions, required permits, criminal and civil penalties, and other aspects of protecting marine mammals. Permits for the take of a marine mammal may be issued only for the following activities:

  • Scientific research
  • Enhancing the survival or recovery of a marine mammal species or stock
  • Commercial and educational photography
  • First-time import for public display
  • Capture of wild marine mammals for public display
  • Incidental take during commercial fishing operations
  • Incidental take during non-fishery commercial activities

Administration and Enforcement: The Marine Mammal Protection Act is managed by the U.S. Department of Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) within the Department of Commerce. The Service is responsible for the management and conservation of sea and marine otters, walrus, polar bear, three species of manatees and dugong. The NMFS is responsible for the management and conservation of pinnipeds other than walrus (i.e., seals and sea lions) and cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises).

Statutory Authority: 16 USC 1361-1407.