Understanding Permits and Authorizations for Protected Species
Permits and authorizations allow people and entities—whether they are researchers, commercial fishermen, a public display facility, or an energy corporation—to conduct their activities legally under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act. Learn more about permits and authorizations for protected species.
Why does NOAA Fisheries issue permits and authorizations for protected species?
The Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act are two laws that protect endangered and threatened species and marine mammals. These laws make it illegal to take, export, and import these species or their parts. Some examples of “take” actions are harassing, hunting, capturing, collecting, trapping, and killing protected animals. Learn more about take.
However, there are some exceptions that make it legal to take, export, or import protected animals, such as marine mammals or sea turtles.
Permits and authorizations allow people and entities—whether they are researchers, commercial fishermen, a public display facility, or an energy corporation—to conduct their activities legally under the ESA and MMPA.
By issuing permits and authorizations, NOAA Fisheries is able to:
- Allow important activities to occur that are compliant with the ESA and/or the MMPA.
- Ensure that mitigation measures are implemented to reduce the impact of the activities.
- Keep track of the activities and how they impact protected species.
What’s the difference between directed and incidental take?
Directed take means that the activity is a purposeful interaction with the protected animal for a specific purpose that may result in take. Examples include:
- Capturing animals and taking measurements and samples to study their health.
- Tagging animals to study their distribution and migration.
- Photographing and counting animals to get population estimates.
- Taking animals in poor health to an animal hospital.
- Filming animals for a documentary.
Incidental take means that the activity is unrelated to the protected species, but the protected species may still be affected. In these cases, the take is unintentional. Examples include:
- Commercial fishing operations.
- Oil and gas development.
- Seismic surveys.
- Military readiness activities.
- Power plant operations.
- Construction projects.
What types of permits and authorizations are available for endangered and threatened species?
- For scientific purposes—these are permits for research to study species listed under the Endangered Species Act. Examples include permits for someone studying endangered salmon in California or the health of sea turtles off Florida. Some researchers have permits to import samples of endangered species to study genetics.
- For enhancement purposes—these are permits to enhance or aid the recovery of endangered species. Examples include:
- Protective regulations—sometimes when species are listed as threatened under the ESA, NOAA Fisheries writes protective regulations. For example, our salmon, steelhead, and green sturgeon 4(d) rules prohibit take, except for specific categories of activities that are described in the rule.
- Relocating endangered seal pups to a safer location.
- Disentangling large whales from life-threatening fishing gear.
- Collecting broodstock for salmon and steelhead hatchery programs.
- Establishing and maintaining experimental populations.
The ESA allows for permits for activities that take protected species incidental to otherwise lawful activities. In these cases, the person or agency is not trying to take the protected species, but they may do unintentionally during their operations. Examples include:
- Catching sea turtles in a state commercial fishery.
- Operating power plants with cooling water intake structures that may capture protected sturgeon.
- Operating hydropower projects.
- Managing private timberlands.
- Maintaining municipal water supply systems.
Some marine mammals, like blue whales and Hawaiian monk seals, are listed as endangered or threatened under the ESA. Because these species are also protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, permits and authorizations for activities on these species must comply with both laws.
What types of permits and authorizations are available for marine mammals?
- For scientific purposes—these are permits for research to study marine mammals. Examples include people studying feeding behavior of bottlenose dolphins off North Carolina, how Weddell seals raise young in Antarctica, or the physiology of harbor seals held for captive research at a university. Some researchers have research permits to import tissue samples to study genetics or other aspects of marine mammal biology.
- For enhancement purposes—these permits are issued to enhance the survival or recovery of a species or stock in the wild by taking actions that increase an individual’s or population’s ability to recover in the wild. For example, adult male Hawaiian monk seals that are known to attack and kill pups have been removed from sensitive islands in an effort to increase pup survival.
- For commercial/educational photography—these permits are issued to filmmakers and photographers working on documentaries, movies, and articles featuring marine mammals.
- For public display—these permits allow marine mammals to be imported or captured from the wild for public display.
- For responding to marine mammals in need—these authorizations allow government employees and other designated responders to help marine mammals for the protection or welfare of the animal or the public (e.g., transporting sick or injured animals to an animal hospital), or to address nuisance animals.
- During commercial fisheries—owners of commercial fishing vessels or non-vessel fishing gear that are working in certain fisheries must obtain a marine mammal authorization certificate. This certificate provides legal coverage if marine mammals are accidentally caught and/or harmed during fishing operations. The certificates are issued under the Marine Mammal Authorization Program.
- During non-commercial fishery activities—these authorizations are issued for projects such as military sonar and training exercises, oil and gas development, construction projects, explosive structure removal, and geophysical surveys. Two types of authorizations are issued in this category: Incidental Harassment Authorizations and Letters of Authorization.
Some marine mammals, like sperm whales and Hawaiian monk seals, are listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Because these species are protected under both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act, permits and authorizations for activities on these species must be compliant under both laws.
For what activities does NOAA Fisheries issue permits?
NOAA Fisheries issues a variety of permits under both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Incidental Take Authorizations and Permits
Under the MMPA, incidental take authorizations are issued for activities that are not directed at marine mammals but may result in take. Most incidental take authorizations have been issued for activities that produce underwater sound. Examples include:
- Military sonar and training exercises.
- Oil and gas development, exploration, production, and abandonment projects.
- Geophysical surveys for other energy and scientific research projects.
- Pile driving associated with construction projects.
- Explosive structure removal.
Other authorizations are issued for marine mammal takes during commercial fishing operations.
Under the ESA, incidental take permits are typically issued when threatened or endangered species may be affected during the operation of:
- State commercial and recreational fisheries in state waters.
- Power plants with cooling water intake structures.
A habitat conservation plan must accompany an application for an ESA incidental take permit. The habitat conservation plan helps ensure that the effects of the authorized incidental take are minimized or mitigated to the maximum extent practicable.
Directed Take Permits
Directed take permits are issued under the ESA and/or the MMPA for activities such as:
- Scientific research on wild animals, captive animals, or parts of protected species (e.g., blood, tissue, bones, whiskers).
- Activities that enhance the propagation or survival of the species.
- Commercial/educational photography.
- Import of a marine mammal for public display.
Which protected species require a permit from NOAA Fisheries?
Under the Endangered Species Act, NOAA Fisheries has jurisdiction over endangered and threatened marine species including some marine mammals, some marine and anadromous fish, some marine invertebrates, sea turtles when in the water, and one marine plant. Protected species include both vertebrates and invertebrates and both domestic and foreign species. Examples include:
- Shortnose sturgeon
- Sacramento River winter-run Chinook salmon
- Common angelshark
- Leatherback sea turtle
- Loggerhead sea turtle
- Blue whale
- Steller sea lion
- White abalone
- Elkhorn coral
See the full list of endangered and threatened species managed by NOAA Fisheries
Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, NOAA Fisheries has jurisdiction over all whales, dolphins and porpoises (cetaceans), and seals and sea lions (pinnipeds). Examples include:
- Spinner dolphin
- Killer whale
- North Atlantic right whale
- Harbor porpoise
- Gray seal
- California sea lion
- Humpback whale
- Ribbon seal
- Northern elephant seal
- Bottlenose dolphin
See the full list of marine mammals managed by NOAA Fisheries
Because some species protected under the ESA and/or the MMPA are under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, permits and authorizations for activities affecting those species are issued by the U.S. FWS. Examples include sea turtles on land, walrus, manatees, polar bears, and sea otters. Visit the U.S. FWS website to learn more:
Do I need a permit?
You may need a permit or authorization if you will be conducting activities that directly or indirectly affect endangered or threatened species or marine mammals. Permits may be issued to federal, state, and local agencies, universities, corporations, individuals, and non-governmental organizations.
To get started, view the Pre-Application Guide in NOAA Fisheries’ online application system for authorizations and permits for protected species. This guide will help you determine the type of permit you need and how to apply for it.
For information about incidental take of marine mammals during commercial fishing and how to obtain a certificate, visit our Marine Mammal Authorization Program page.
How can I find out about pending and issued permits and authorizations?
- Search the Federal Register. Many permits and authorizations for protected species have public comment periods that are published in the Federal Register. Notices are also published in the Federal Register when certain permits or authorizations are issued.
- Use our online application system for authorizations and permits for protected species (APPS). Most applications for directed take permits under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act can be found here, including those currently available for public comment. You can also use APPS to search issued and expired directed take permits.
- Visit our Marine Mammal Protection Act incidental take authorization page to find which applications for marine mammal incidental take have been submitted, issued, and expired, as well as related and supporting documents for each application.