Endangered Species Handbook

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Marine Mammal Protection Act

      Prior to passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), millions of dolphins were drowned in purse seine nets set for tuna.  The MMPA, enacted in 1972, established a moratorium on the taking and importation of marine mammals except under permit.  The authority for protecting these animals is divided between two departments.  The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is responsible for management authority for the Sea Otter, Walrus, Polar Bear and Dugong, among others; while the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has authority over cetaceans and seals.  Under the MMPA, it is unlawful to harass, hunt, capture or kill any marine mammal on the high seas, in water or on lands under the jurisdiction of the United States except under permit.
      The MMPA requires a permit prior to capturing marine mammals in all waters worldwide for public display or scientific research.  These permits are issued by the USFWS or the NMFS under strict regulations.  Once in captivity, the animals are under the jurisdiction of the Animal Welfare Act, which is enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).  Fishing vessels must apply for permits if their operations result in incidental kills; permits can be issued only if the killing, such as drowning in fishing nets, would not cause declines in wild populations below “potential biological removal levels,” defined as the largest number that can be killed in optimum sustainable populations.  This means that populations of a particular area, such as the California Sea Lions, are used as a basis for permits, not the species’ overall population.  The funding for Observers on fishing boats to verify the reports of numbers of seals, sea lions and cetaceans drowned in nets is not great enough to require Observers on all fishing boats.  In general, NMFS has stated that reports of mortalities on boats without Observers total in the hundreds, but when Observers are present, thousands of marine mammals are documented as drowned.  The influence of the fishing industry on issuance of these permits and formulation of regulations by the U.S. Congress has been significant.  Between 1988 and 1994, all regulations on incidental kills were suspended prior to the development of present regulations under Sections 117 and 118, allowing the deaths of untold numbers of marine mammals.  The present rules are far less stringent and allow higher mortality of whales, such as Humpback Whales, in ground fisheries.  Regional Advisory Commissions assess each fishery to determine methods of reducing mortality.  Fishing lines, nets and other apparatus have been responsible for the deaths of many endangered Northern Right Whales along Atlantic coasts in recent years, and far more regulations are needed under both the MMPA and the ESA to prevent these deaths.
      Importation and exportation of marine mammals is regulated by permit as well, and very few wild marine mammals have been allowed to be imported or exported under the MMPA.  In addition, the MMPA prohibits the use of any port or harbor under U.S. jurisdiction for any purpose connected with the unlawful taking or importation of any marine mammal.  It is prohibited to possess any unlawfully taken marine mammal, including parts or products, and it is prohibited to transport, purchase, sell, or offer to purchase or sell any marine mammal, including parts and products.  Unfortunately, the importation of Polar Bear trophies from Canada has become easier through weakening of the MMPA.  The Safari Club International, a powerful trophy hunting lobby, was successful in obtaining the latter weakening of the MMPA.         

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