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Celebrating 50 Years of Marine Mammals in the Spotlight

October 19, 2022

NOAA Fisheries celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. This landmark legislation protects all marine mammals in U.S. waters, including four Species in the Spotlight.

5184x3456-mom with twins.jpg Hawaiian monk seal Mom (GV18) with rare twin pups in May 2019 on Lisianski Island. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Pete Leary.

Editor's Note December 4, 2023: Endangered North Atlantic right whales are approaching extinction. There are approximately 360 individuals remaining, including fewer than 70 reproductively active females. Human impacts continue to threaten the survival of this species.

In 2022, we commemorated the 50th Anniversary of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, one of the nation’s strongest marine conservation laws. The anniversary is a time to reflect on the science and conservation successes of the past 50 years, while also looking towards the next 50 years and beyond. 

The Species in the Spotlight initiative focuses resources on the nine most imperiled marine species protected under the Endangered Species Act. As part of the celebration, NOAA Fisheries is highlighting work the MMPA has accomplished pertaining to the four marine mammals in the Spotlight.

North Atlantic Right Whale  

North Atlantic right whales sighted off of Neptune Beach, FL on December 17, 2021
North Atlantic right whales #3890 (“Babushka”), #3946, and #4190 (“Curlew”) sighted approximately 3NM off Neptune Beach, FL on December 17, 2021. Credit: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (NOAA permit 20556).

The North Atlantic right whale is one of the world’s most endangered whale species. The latest preliminary estimate suggests there are fewer than 350 remaining, including only 70 reproductive females. Entanglement in fishing gear and vessel strikes are the leading causes of North Atlantic right whale injury and death. Since 2017, this species has experienced an ongoing Unusual Mortality Event. It includes 91 right whale deaths, serious injuries, and morbidities (sublethal injury or illness) in U.S. and Canadian waters.  

NOAA Fisheries has taken many steps under the MMPA to protect this imperiled species. The North Atlantic right whale Road to Recovery describes NOAA Fisheries’ efforts to halt the current population decline and recover the species. It shows how our collective actions, in collaboration with partners, fit together to save this iconic species. The Road to Recovery focuses on: 

  1. Addressing existing and emerging threats to the species
  2. Monitoring the health of the population and the effectiveness of conservation efforts 

Through the MMPA, NOAA Fisheries also implements the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan. The goal of the plan is to reduce entanglement related injuries and deaths of large whales including North Atlantic right whales in commercial fishing gear. It implements requirements such as:

  • Seasonal area closures
  • Use of weak rope and sinking groundline
  • Gear marking
  • Minimum number of traps per buoy line to better understand and reduce the threat of entanglements 

Looking to the future, we will continue to take conservation actions to reverse their decline and recover this species.

Southern Resident Killer Whale

Southern Resident killer whale J26 seen alongside a breaching J16
Southern Resident killer whale J16 breaches near San Juan Island in Washington while J26 swims nearby. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

There are fewer than 80 Southern resident killer whales living in the eastern North Pacific waters. In 2003, NOAA Fisheries reviewed the status of the whales and found that the population was in significant decline. Consequently, we developed a conservation plan. It outlined recovery initiatives for each of the species' major threats, such as ocean noise and availability of the whale’s primary prey, Chinook salmon.

Several factors contribute to the decline in Chinook salmon populations. Some of these major threats include climate change and droughts, predation by non-native species, and loss of spawning habitats. To address this decline, NOAA funded and implemented salmon restoration projects that focus on restoring spawning and rearing habitats. Additionally, a 2021 amendment to the fish’s management plan ensures more prey will be available during years of low salmon returns. 

NOAA Fisheries and our partners conduct research to better understand the impacts of these threats on Southern resident killer whales. This is especially important since animals in small populations often have lower adult survival. We developed individual health profiles for each whale to help determine their specific conditions, along with factors affecting the population as a whole. NOAA Fisheries and our partners continue to refine ongoing actions and prioritize new goals in protecting this culturally important West Coast species.

Cook Inlet Beluga Whale

Aerial photo of adult and juvenile beluga whales swimming at surface.
A Cook Inlet beluga whale mother and newborn calf swim through the silty water of Cook Inlet. Credit: Hollis Europe & Jacob Barbaro/NOAA Fisheries (Permit #20465)

Cook Inlet beluga whales are known for their white color and vocal sound. They were hunted in the waters of Cook Inlet, Alaska, until the practice was suspended in 2007. Despite the cessation of hunting, the species has not recovered and continues to decline. Current estimates place the population at 279 individuals. The species is threatened by a combination of factors including ocean noise, disease, nutrient deficiencies, and catastrophic events such as oil spills and tsunamis.

Advanced technologies are helping expand research into this species’s recovery. To gather more accurate estimates for population data, we conduct aerial surveys, along with photogrammetry (the use of photos from uncrewed aerial systems). Measurements from photogrammetry are essential in helping estimate age classes, beluga calf production, individual growth rate, and overall health. Scientists also gather skin samples from live whales to study their DNA and determine age. Our goal is to eventually down-list its status from endangered to threatened. 

Hawaiian Monk Seal

Two young seals rest on a beach in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Credit: NOAA Fisheries (Permit #22677)
Two young seals rest on a beach in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Credit: NOAA Fisheries (Permit #22677)

The Hawaiian Monk Seal is one of the most endangered seal species in the world with a population estimate around 1,570 seals. These seals are only found on the main and Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Entanglement in fishing gear and risk of disease, including toxoplasmosis and morbillivirus, are the greatest threats to the species. 

In 2014, supported by an award from the Prescott Grant Program, the Marine Mammal Center opened Ke Kai Ola. The facility is a hospital for the rehabilitation of the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals. Located in Kona, Hawai‘i, it provides veterinary care for sick, injured, or orphaned seals, with approximately 20 released to date. The hospital frequently hosts abandoned pups, seals with embedded barbed hooks, and seals infected with toxoplasmosis, the leading cause of seal death in the main Hawaiian Islands.  

As a proactive and novel step, scientists began vaccinating Hawaiian monk seals against morbillivirus in 2016. Unlike toxoplasmosis, which is a present disease in the Hawaiian monk seal population, morbillivirus has not been detected in the species. Due to their isolated range and small population size, morbillivirus could decimate the population if introduced. To date, most of the adult population have been successfully vaccinated, with field teams currently prioritizing giving weaned pups their first vaccine. Thanks to continued efforts by NOAA Fisheries and our partners, the Hawaiian monk seal population recently surpassed 1,500 individuals, the first time in 20 years!

Looking to the Future

Every day, NOAA Fisheries and our partners strive to address and reduce challenges threatening marine mammals. Healthy marine mammal populations are critical for balanced ocean ecosystems, and the MMPA is invaluable legislation for marine mammal conservation and recovery. 

The 50th anniversary is a time to celebrate all of the MMPA's accomplishments and to acknowledge our continuing efforts. The next 50 years will bring challenges. To continue to fulfill our stewardship responsibility under the MMPA, we are using a climate-ready conservation approach and the best available science to enhance resilience and adaptation strategies for marine mammals and other protected species and their habitats to climate-related changes.