Protected Species Parts

Parts from marine mammals and ESA-listed species: what they are, how you can get them, what you can do with them, and what authorizations or permits you need.

What is a protected species part?

Protected species are those species that are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and/or the Endangered Species Act.  Protected species under NOAA Fisheries' jurisdiction include marine mammals (dolphins, porpoises, whales, seals, and sea lions) and ESA-listed marine and anadromous species (e.g., some corals, some abalone, certain sturgeon, many salmon, and various sawfish species).  

Protected species parts include any part of a protected species, both hard and soft.  This includes everything from teeth to fur to blood to blow (exhalate).  The term "parts" also refers to parts derived from tissues, such as cell lines and DNA.  Urine and feces are not considered parts. 

Why do you need permission to possess, import, export, buy, sell, or transfer parts of marine mammals or protected species?

All marine mammals are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act and endangered and threatened species are protected under the Endangered Species Act.  These laws regulate what can and cannot be done with live animals and with parts of those animals.

The MMPA and ESA prohibit the collection (i.e., take), import and export, of protected species parts.  The origin of the part and your plans for it will determine what authorization you need.  Without the proper authorization, you are in violation of the law.  It is illegal to receive or possess a part that was illegally collected or imported.

Pre and post Act parts

Protected species parts fall into 2 categories:

1.  Pre-Act/Antique/Pre-listed

Pre-Act parts are marine mammal parts that are older than 1972.  Antique parts are parts from endangered or threatened species that are over 100 years old.  A Letter of Determination is required to import, export, or sell these parts for commercial or personal use.  These parts may be bought and sold.                 

Pre-listed parts are endangered or threatened species parts that are older than 1973 or the species' listing date (if listed after 1973), but are not over 100 years old.  These parts must have a clear chain of custody and must not have been involved in commerce (i.e., bought or sold during this time).  You must obtain a Letter of Determination to import or export these parts.  These parts may not be bought and sold.  

2.  Post-Act

Post-Act parts include marine mammal parts taken after 1972 or ESA-listed parts taken after 1973. 

If you would like to import or export post-Act parts for scientific research purposes, you will need to apply for a scientific research permit.  You will also need to apply for a scientific research permits if you plan on conducting research using protected species cell lines.  These parts may not be bought or sold.

How do you get protected species parts?

There are several options to get protected species parts, depending on the age and origin of the part.

For Pre-Act, Antique, and Pre-listed parts:

  • You need a Letter of Determination to import, export, and sell these parts.
  • MMPA Pre-Act (taken before 1972) and ESA Antique (100 years old or older) parts may be bought or sold.
  • Pre-listed ESA parts that are less than 100 years old cannot be bought or sold. 

For Post-Act parts from marine mammals (see following sections for more detail):

  • Scientific research permits
  • Transfers and loans
  • Subsistence hunted animals
  • Stranded animals

For Post-Act parts from ESA-listed species:

  • Scientific research permits

Scientific research permits for protected species parts

If you would like to import or export post-Act parts for scientific research, you will need to apply for a scientific research permit.

You will also need to apply for a scientific research permit if you plan on developing or using protected species cell lines for scientific research.  

Once you have a scientific research permit, you may transfer or loan parts from  your collection in accordance with permit conditions.  Receipt, transfer, and loans of marine mammal parts must be for the purpose of scientific research, maintenance in a professionally curated scientific collection, or education.  You may not receive or transfer parts for personal collections. 

How do you receive or transfer a marine mammal part that is in the United States and has been legally obtained, without getting a permit?

Before you receive a marine mammal part, you need to make sure you have proper authorization to receive it.  You may receive a part if it was legally collected or imported and you are one of the following:

  • An employee of NOAA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, or any government agency with conservation and management responsibilities, who receive the part in the course of official duties.
  • A permit holder or listed under another person's permit as a Co-Investigator or Authorized Recipient, which authorizes that species.
  • Authorized under a Stranding Agreement to respond to and maintain marine mammal parts (does not apply if the part is from a species that is depleted, threatened, or endangered.  
  • A person holding a Regional Authorization letter from the appropriate NOAA Fisheries Regional Administrator to receive parts.

Please note there are different reporting requirements, depending on how you received the parts.  Refer to your authorization for guidance on how and when you need to report your parts. 

Protected species parts may not be bought or sold, except for parts that meet the pre-Act (MMPA) or Antique (ESA) exemptions explained above.  You may request expenses (actual costs) associated with shipping and processing samples.  

Receipt, transfer, and loans of marine mammals parts must be for the purpose of scientific research, maintenance in a professionally curated scientific collection, or education.  Loans must be less than 12 months, a record of the loan must be maintained, and the recipient must be authorized.  You may not transfer parts for personal collections.

Is a permit required to collect or receive parts from subsistence hunted marine mammals?

Yes, a scientific research permit is required to collect, receive, or import parts from marine mammals legally hunted for subsistence.  Learn more about applying for a scientific research permit.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act specifically provides for an exception for Alaska Natives to take marine mammals for subsistence purposes.  Find out more about the co-management of marine mammals in Alaska.

How do you obtain permission to receive parts taken from stranded marine mammals in the United States, for research, education, or outreach?

If you would like to receive parts taken from marine mammals that stranded in the United States after 1972 for use for scientific research, education, or curation, please contact the appropriate NOAA Fisheries Stranding Network Coordinator for the area where you live.  They can help you obtain a Regional Authorization letter to receive these parts.

Can you keep a protected species part found on the beach?

In some cases, yes, you may keep the part.  You may collect and keep any bones, teeth, or ivory from a non-ESA listed marine mammal found on a beach or land within ¼ of a mile of an ocean, bay, or estuary.  You may not collect parts from a carcass or parts with soft tissues attached.

Any marine mammal bones, teeth, or ivory that you collect must be identified and registered with the nearest NOAA Fisheries Regional Office. You may contact the appropriate Stranding Network Coordinator in your region for assistance.  Marine mammal parts collected in this manner may not be bought or sold.    

A dead marine mammal with soft tissue is a stranded animal and you should report it to the nearest NOAA Fisheries Stranding Network Coordinator so that the animal may be sampled for scientific research purposes and properly disposed of.  You may not collect parts from a stranded animal.

Parts from ESA-listed species, including threatened or endangered species, may not be collected without a permit or other authorization: 

What about ambergris?

You may not collect, keep, or sell ambergris because it is a part from an endangered marine mammal.

Ambergris is a naturally occurring by-product of sperm whale digestive tracts sometimes found on beaches.  Ambergris is created when secretions form around squid beaks and cuttlefish parts in the intestinal tract of a whale.

Is it legal to buy and sell protected species parts or products?

In general, it is illegal to buy and sell protected species parts or products; however, there are a few exceptions:

Native handicrafts- items that qualify as authentic native articles of handicraft and clothing may be bought and sold within the United States.  This does not include international sales, including transit through Canada.  For example, items purchased in Alaska while on a cruise cannot travel through Canada on the way back to the United States.

Pre-act and Antique parts- items that are older than 1972 (for marine mammals) and older than 100 years (for ESA- listed species) may be bought and sold.  These items must have a Letter of Determination accompanying their sale.

What about fossils?

A fossil is created when all the organic material in a specimen has been replaced by inorganic material.  Because they lack organic material, protected species fossils do not fall under the jurisdiction of the Marine Mammal Protection Act or the Endangered Species Act.  Protected species fossils can be bought or sold without authorization.

It is important to note that not all items picked up on beaches or dug up are fossils. A fossil is not the same as a really old bone.  Fossils are not regulated under the MMPA or ESA, but old bones are. 

Are cell lines from protected species considered parts?

Yes, cell lines are considered protected species parts.  Cell lines may only be transferred to researchers for scientific purposes under a scientific research permit.  These cell lines cannot be bought or sold.

Other permits for protected species parts

If you are going to import or export parts from species listed on the Appendices to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) you will need a CITES Permit.  For further information, please contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Management Authority, Branch of Permits.

In addition, your samples must be declared and cleared through a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service port designated for wildlife.  A Wildlife Declaration Form 3-177 must be filed with the USFWS inspector at the time of import or export.  Contact the appropriate port for details about how to declare and clear your shipment prior to shipping your samples.

More information

Letter of Determination for Pre-Act parts

Scientific research permit for Post-Act parts

NOAA Fisheries stranding coordinators


Wildlife Declaration Form 3-177

Marine Mammal Parts and Products in Alaska

Marine Mammal Protection Act

Endangered Species Act

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