Recovery of Endangered and Threatened Species

June 25, 2017

Learn how NOAA Fisheries works with partners to protect and recover endangered and threatened marine species.

What is an endangered or threatened species?

Under the Endangered Species Act, a species is considered “endangered” if it is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. A species is considered “threatened” if it is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future.

Who is responsible for protecting endangered and threatened species?

NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service share responsibility for implementing the Endangered Species Act, which is the primary way the federal government protects species in danger of extinction. The purpose of the act is to conserve endangered and threatened species and their ecosystems. NOAA Fisheries is responsible for endangered and threatened marine and anadromous species—from whales and seals to sharks, salmon, and corals. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for terrestrial and freshwater species, but also has responsibility over several marine species like sea otters, manatees, and polar bears. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries also share jurisdiction over several other species such as sea turtles and Atlantic salmon.

NOAA Fisheries works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal agencies, the states, tribes, and other stakeholders to recover listed species. As a nation that enjoys the benefits provided by a diverse natural environment, it is everyone’s shared responsibility to help recover endangered and threatened species.

What does it mean to recover an endangered or threatened species?

Recovery is the process of restoring endangered and threatened species to the point where they no longer require the safeguards of the Endangered Species Act.

To determine if an endangered or threatened species has recovered, NOAA Fisheries reviews the best available data about the species. This information is gathered from the states, members of the public, the scientific community, and various other sources. We evaluate this information against the definitions of threatened and endangered and the species’ recovery criteria, where identified, to determine if the species is still in danger of extinction or likely to become endangered in the future. Some factors that managers may consider when determining if a species is eligible for downlisting (i.e., from endangered to threatened) or delisting (i.e., removal from the list) are population increases, mechanisms to conserve a species and its habitat, and reduction of threats. Once a species is determined to be recovered, it can then be removed from the list of endangered and threatened species. NOAA Fisheries and partners monitor a delisted species status for at least five years afterward to ensure its recovery is sustained.

Why is it important to recover endangered and threatened marine and anadromous species?

Each plant, animal, and their physical environment is part of a complex web of life. The extinction of a single species can affect many other species, especially humans, who depend on marine, estuarine, and riverine environments for food, commerce, medicine, and recreation. In addition to these practical benefits, the wide variety of species found in our oceans and coasts provide inspiration, beauty, and solace to many. The Endangered Species Act is a tool to help focus conservation efforts and preserve the diversity of the planet in an effort to maintain this natural legacy for future generations.

What threats are preventing species recovery?

Endangered and threatened species face many threats, including habitat destruction; the effects of pollution, disease, and competition from invasive species; a changing climate; and intense or illegal harvesting pressures. For some listed species, while the major threats no longer exist today, there still are not enough members of the species to sufficiently minimize extinction risk the point where the species is no longer in danger of extinction.

What are we doing to recover endangered and threatened species?

Once a species is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, it becomes illegal to "take" that species (harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, collect, or attempt to do these things). Similar prohibitions may also be extended to species listed as threatened under the ESA. Critical habitat must also be designated for the conservation of the species. In addition to the protections associated with their listing under the ESA, we also take the following management actions:

  • Develop and implement recovery plans for listed species where such plans would promote conservation.
  • Monitor and evaluate the status of listed species.
  • Provide grants to states and tribes for species conservation.
  • Consult on any federal government actions that may affect a listed species or its designated critical habitat to minimize possible adverse effects.
  • Enter bilateral and multilateral agreements with other nations to encourage conservation of listed species.
  • Investigate violations of the ESA.
  • Cooperate with non-federal partners to develop conservation plans, safe harbor agreements, and candidate conservation agreements with assurances for the long-term conservation of species.
  • Issue permits that authorize scientific research to learn more about listed species, or activities that enhance the propagation or survival of listed species.
  • Designate experimental populations of listed species to further the conservation and recovery of those species. 
  • Issue determinations regarding the pre-listed or antique status of ESA species parts.

What is a recovery plan and how does it help listed species?

A primary role for NOAA Fisheries in recovering endangered and threatened species is to set goals for each species’ recovery comeback through the development of recovery plans. A recovery plan serves as a road map for species recovery. The plans help organize, coordinate, and prioritize recovery actions among the many management agencies, nonprofit organizations, tribal entities, stakeholders, and citizens that undertake recovery efforts. Focused implementation of actions outlined in a recovery plan also ensures effective use of resources. Recovery plans are guidance documents, not regulatory, and the Endangered Species Act clearly envisions recovery plans as the central organizing tool guiding each species’ progress toward recovery.

How do NOAA Fisheries partners contribute to the recovery of endangered and threatened species?

To recover endangered and threatened species, NOAA Fisheries needs the help of many partners. These partners provide critical resources to aid in conservation and recovery. NOAA Fisheries scientists and partners are also using innovative science to study the threats species face and determine the best methods for recovery. Partnerships include:


Under section 6 of the Endangered Species Act, we are authorized to enter into agreements with any state that establishes and maintains an "adequate and active" program for the conservation of endangered and threatened species. Once a state enters into such an agreement, NOAA Fisheries is authorized to both help and fund implementation of the state's conservation program.

States can use federal funding—which we provide in the form of Species Recovery Grants —to support management, research, and monitoring as well as outreach projects that have direct conservation benefits for listed species, recently delisted species, and candidate species that reside within that state.

Federal Agencies

Federal agencies other than NOAA Fisheries and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must also use their authorities to carry out programs for the conservation of threatened and endangered species (under section 7(a)(1) of the ESA).

Federal agencies must also minimize activities that may adversely affect threatened and endangered species or destroy or modify designated critical habitat through interagency consultation (under section 7(a)(2) of the ESA).


If Species Recovery Grants to tribes support tribally led recovery efforts, including management, research, monitoring, and outreach projects that have direct conservation benefits for listed species, recently delisted species, and candidate species.

Local Governments

NOAA Fisheries may also collaborate with local governments to obtain information on listed species and the ecosystems on which they depend in order to support the development of Habitat Conservation Plans for Incidental Take Permits issued under section 10 of the ESA. Habitat Conservation Plans ensure that the the impacts of the proposed take of listed species is minimized or mitigated to the maximum extent practicable. Habitat Conservation Plans are required for an Incidental Take Permit to private entities undertaking projects that may result in take of endangered or threatened species, and help contribute to the recovery of those species.

Private and Nonprofit Organizations

Private and nonprofit entities and individuals also take actions to recover species because they share a goal of preserving biodiversity, or because they have an interest in seeing the species delisted.

How successful is the Endangered Species Act?

The Endangered Species Act has been very successful in preventing species extinctions. Less than 1 percent of the species listed under the act have been lost. 

Steller sea lion – the Eastern distinct population segment of Steller sea lions, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act almost a quarter century ago, has recovered and was removed from the list. The delisting of this population of Steller sea lions—which was once depleted due to harvests, predator control programs, and indiscriminate killing—demonstrates that species can recover with targeted conservation efforts.

Humpback whale – in 2016, NOAA Fisheries revised the listing for humpback whales under the Endangered Species Act, dividing the whales into 14 distinct population segments and finding that 9 of these distinct population segments do not warrant listing under the Endangered Species Act. International conservation efforts to protect and conserve whales over the past 40 years proved successful for most populations.

Green sea turtle – in 2016, NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service revised the listing for green sea turtles under the Endangered Species Act, dividing the species into 11 distinct population segments and reclassifying two endangered breeding populations (in Florida and the Pacific Coast of Mexico) as threatened distinct population segments due to successful conservation efforts in the United States and abroad.

How can I help prevent species from going extinct and aid in their recovery?

Here are some ways you can help recover endangered and threatened species:

  • Learn about endangered and threatened species in your area and the threats they face.
  • Watch wildlife responsibly
  • Volunteer for restoration projects and take other actions to protect habitat.
  • Report marine mammals or sea turtles in distress
  • Report wildlife harassment to NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement 24-hour hotline: (800) 853-1964.
  • Never purchase anything made from an endangered or threatened species.
  • Reduce your water consumption.
  • Reduce the amount of pollution you generate.
  • Make informed consumer decisions, from seafood to wildlife tours:
    • FishWatch – learn about making smart, sustainable seafood choices.
    • DolphinSMART – help minimize harassment and feeding of wild dolphins.
    • WhaleSENSE – learn about responsible whale watching.