Endangered Species Conservation
NOAA Fisheries is responsible for the protection, conservation, and recovery of endangered and threatened marine and anadromous species under the Endangered Species Act. The ESA aims to conserve these species and the ecosystems they depend on. To implement the ESA, we work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal, tribal, state, and local agencies, as well as nongovernmental organizations and private citizens.
Under the ESA, a species is considered:
- Endangered if it is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range.
- Threatened if it is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.
Our Work Under the ESA
Our work to conserve and recover endangered and threatened marine species includes:
Developing and implementing recovery plans for listed species (section 4).
Monitoring and evaluating the status of listed species (section 4).
Consulting on federal actions that may affect a listed species or its designated critical habitat to minimize possible adverse effects (section 7).
Entering bilateral and multilateral agreements with other nations to encourage conservation of listed species (section 8).
Investigating violations of the ESA (section 9).
Cooperating with non-federal partners to develop conservation plans, safe harbor agreements, and candidate conservation agreements with assurances for the long-term conservation of species (section 10).
Issuing permits that authorize scientific research to learn more about listed species, or activities that enhance the propagation or survival of listed species (section 10).
Designating experimental populations of listed species to further the conservation and recovery of those species (section 10).
Issuing determinations regarding the pre-listed or antique status of ESA species parts (section 10).
ESA By the Numbers
Additional species are currently under review or have been proposed for ESA listing:
2 petitioned species awaiting 90-day findings.
13 candidate species for ESA listing.
3 proposed species for ESA listing.
NOAA Fisheries and U.S. FWS share responsibility for administering the ESA
Generally, NOAA Fisheries manages marine species and anadromous species (fish that are born in freshwater, spend most of their lives in saltwater, and return to freshwater to spawn) including whales, corals, sea turtles, and salmon. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages land and freshwater species such as polar bears, sea otters, and manatees.
Both U.S. species and foreign species are protected under the ESA
Listing Species Under the ESA
Before an animal or plant species can receive ESA protections, it must first be added to the federal lists of threatened and endangered wildlife and plants. Once NOAA Fisheries determines that a species warrants listing, it adds the species to its lists at 50 CFR 223.102 (threatened species) and 50 CFR 224.101 (endangered species). All plant and animal species, except pest insects, are eligible for listing.
Monitoring Species Status
The conservation status of all species listed under the ESA must be reviewed at least once every 5 years. The review evaluates whether the endangered or threatened classification is still appropriate for the species. These 5-year reviews consider recent recovery progress and the level and impact of ongoing and new or future threats. They also incorporate any new information about the species.
Designating Critical Habitat
One of the main purposes of the ESA is to provide a means for conserving the ecosystems that threatened and endangered species depend upon for survival and recovery. Areas that are determined to be essential, or that contain features that are essential, for the conservation of an ESA-listed species may be designated as “critical habitat.” Once critical habitat is designated, federal agencies consult with NOAA Fisheries to ensure their actions in these areas are not likely to destroy or adversely modify the critical habitat. Critical habitat does not affect land ownership or set up a refuge or closed area, and it does not restrict private citizens’ use of the area. Critical habitat also does not mandate government or public access to private lands.
Recovering Endangered and Threatened Species
Recovery is the process of restoring listed species and their ecosystems to the point where they no longer require ESA protections. To guide efforst to bring these species back to health, we develop recovery plans that outline the path and activities required to restore and secure self-sustaining wild populations. We collaborate with federal, state, and local governments, as well as tribal nations and interested nongovernmental stakeholders, to create these plans.
Conservation groups; academia; tribal nations; and federal, state, and local governments have all made important contributions to the recovery of many endangered and threatened species. We partner with these organizations in many ways to minimize harmful effects on listed species and work toward their recovery.
ESA Regulations, Policies, and Guidance
We have issued regulations, national policies, and guidance to promote efficiency and consistency in implementing the ESA to conserve and recover marine species.
Conservation & Management
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. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries also share jurisdiction over several other species such as sea turtles and Atlantic salmon.
Currently, NOAA Fisheries has jurisdiction over more than 160 endangered and threatened marine species under the ESA. Before an animal or plant species can receive the protections provided by the ESA, it must first be added to the federal lists of endangered and threatened wildlife and plants. Once a species is listed, several requirements and prohibitions are triggered to provide for the species’ conservation. Marine mammals that are listed as endangered or threatened are also considered "depleted" under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Learn more about the ESA listing process.
An endangered listing prohibits the:
Import and export of the species.
Sale and/or offer to sell the species in interstate or foreign commerce.
Delivery, receipt, carriage, transport, or shipment of the species in (1) interstate or foreign commerce, and (2) the course of a commercial activity.
“Take” of the species (e.g., by harassing, harming, pursuing, hunting, shooting, wounding, killing, trapping, capturing, or collecting) within the United States, within U.S. territorial seas, or on the high seas.
These ESA prohibitions apply to all persons under U.S. jurisdiction, but permits may be issued to authorize specific prohibited activities. Learn more about endangered species permits.
For threatened species, we may issue regulations deemed necessary and advisable for the conservation of the species. These regulations can extend some, or all, of the prohibitions that apply to endangered species to threatened species.
The ESA also requires us to:
Designate critical habitat for the conservation of the species.
Consult on federal actions that may affect a listed species, or its designated critical habitat, to minimize possible adverse effects.
Develop and implement species recovery plans.
Learn more about these topics below.
One of the main purposes of the ESA is to provide a means for conserving the ecosystems that threatened and endangered species depend upon for survival and recovery. When a species is listed under the ESA, NOAA Fisheries must determine whether there are areas that meet the definition of critical habitat:
Specific areas within the geographical area occupied by the species at the time of listing that contain physical or biological features essential to conservation of the species, and that may require special management considerations or protection.
Specific areas outside the geographical area occupied by the species if the agency determines they are essential for conservation of the species.
Critical habitat designations typically include habitat features that support the life-history needs of the species, such as nursing, pupping or breeding sites, or foraging areas containing needed prey species. In other words, critical habitat represents the habitat essential for the species’ recovery.
Once critical habitat is designated, federal agencies consult with NOAA Fisheries to ensure their actions in these areas are not likely to destroy or adversely modify the critical habitat. Critical habitat does not affect land ownership or set up a refuge or closed area, and it does not restrict private citizens’ use of the area. Critical habitat also does not mandate government or public access to private lands.
Consulting on Federal Actions
The ESA directs all federal agencies to work to conserve endangered and threatened species. Section 7 of the ESA, titled "Interagency Cooperation," requires that federal agency actions are not likely to jeopardize the existence of any ESA-listed species, or to destroy or adversely modify their critical habitat.
Under section 7, federal agencies must consult with NOAA Fisheries when any action they carry out, fund, or authorize (such as through a permit) may affect a listed species or their critical habitat. This process usually begins with the federal agency requesting an informal consultation with NOAA Fisheries in the early stages of project planning. During this consultation, we might discuss the types of listed species that live in the proposed action area and the effect the proposed action may have on those species.
Species Recovery Planning
Endangered and threatened species have different needs and may require different conservation strategies to achieve recovery. Recovery is the process of restoring listed species and their ecosystems to the point where they no longer require ESA protections. To recover a species, we work to:
Reduce or eliminate threats.
Restore or establish self-sustaining wild populations.
After a species has recovered, we:
Remove the species from the list because it has recovered to the point where they no longer need ESA protection—this is known as “delisting.”
Monitor the species status for no less than 5 years after delisting to ensure its recovery is sustained.
Conservation measures for endangered and threatened species may include conserving and restoring habitat, reducing entanglement or bycatch in fishing gear, preventing vessel strikes, and minimizing exposure to pollutants and chemical contaminants. Knowledge of the natural history of a species is essential to understanding its needs and developing effective and appropriate conservation measures.
The ESA has been successful in preventing species extinctions—less than 1 percent of the listed species have gone extinct. Although we have recovered and delisted only a small percentage of species since the ESA was enacted in 1973, hundreds of species would likely have gone extinct without the protections of the ESA.
More About This Topic
Science is critical to understanding the needs and status of protected species populations, as well as the threats to their health and well-being. Our scientific understanding of these topics helps us develop and implement recovery efforts for endangered and threatened species. Examples of our work include assessing and monitoring populations, researching disease agents (e.g., pathogens, parasites, and harmful algal blooms), and developing gear modifications to reduce entanglement and bycatch.
We rely on population assessments to evaluate the status of the endangered and threatened species we manage under the Endangered Species Act. These assessments collect and analyze scientific information on a species’ population structure, life history characteristics and vital rates, abundance, and threats—particularly those caused by human activities.
Our scientists and resource managers develop population assessment reports to inform decisions related to a protected species’ listing status, federal or federally funded activities that may impact a species or its habitat, and acceptable bycatch levels. The reports also inform scientific research and incidental take permits issued to agencies, scientific and academic institutions, and industry. Finally, population assessments allow us to evaluate and determine the effectiveness of recovery measures and to adjust management approaches as needed.
Population assessment depends on collaboration between experts throughout our science centers. We also work closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and many university scientists in the United States and beyond.
Ship-based and aerial surveys are critical to achieving our marine mammal and sea turtle population assessment goals, which include estimating abundance and examining trends and human impacts relative to management objectives. Our science centers conduct and manage a limited number of marine mammal and sea turtle-focused surveys each year, often with external collaborators. The number of surveys depends on funding and available ship time and flight time.
The efficiency of sound travel under water has led to increasing concern over how man-made sound potentially impacts the underwater environment. Our scientists support and conduct research to examine these potential impacts on marine animals and to increase understanding of:
How marine animals use sound.
How underwater acoustics can be used to assess marine animal populations.
How and to what degree anthropogenic activities are changing the underwater soundscape.
How these changes may potentially impact marine animals in their acoustic habitat.
What measures can be taken to mitigate potential impacts.
Reducing bycatch of protected species can improve the recovery of marine mammals, sea turtles, and fish. Together with the fishing industry, we work to minimize bycatch by developing technological solutions and changes in fishing practices. These include gear modifications, avoidance programs, and/or improved fishing practices in commercial and recreational fisheries.
Species Valuation Studies
Species valuation studies assess the national benefits derived from threatened and endangered marine species, including fish, sea turtles, marine mammals, and seabirds. Determining the economic value of protected species helps us determine the benefits and value of our corresponding conservation and recovery efforts.
Climate and Ecosystem Science
Understanding climate change impacts on living marine resource distribution and occurrence patterns is a high priority for NOAA Fisheries. We know relatively little about the effects of global and regional climate dynamics on species distribution, abundance, and prey availability. The Arctic in particular is a window to changing climate patterns and a suitable biological laboratory to observe and record the impacts of receding sea ice, warming sea surface temperatures, and variable energy flow. These impacts all affect key marine ecosystem functions and native tribal communities that depend on Arctic resources for their livelihood and sustenance.
Learn about other advanced technologies used by our scientists—including drones, satellite tagging and tracking, and genetic research—to study marine mammals and other ocean animals.
More About This Topic
Species in the Spotlight
Of all the species NOAA Fisheries protects under the Endangered Species Act, we consider eight among the most at risk of extinction in the near future. For some, their numbers are so low that they need to be bred in captivity; others are facing human threats that must be addressed to prevent their extinction. The "Species in the Spotlight: Survive to Thrive" initiative was launched in 2015 to bring greater attention and marshal resources to save these highly at-risk species:
Species in the Spotlight Action Plan Implementation Highlights (high resolution graphic)
These eight species were selected because they all are listed as endangered, their populations are declining, and they are considered a recovery priority #1. A recovery priority #1 species is one whose extinction is almost certain in the immediate future because of rapid population decline or habitat destruction. Additionally, it is a species that conflicts with construction, other developmental projects, or other forms of economic activity. We understand the limiting factors and threats to these species, and we know that the necessary management actions have a high probability of success. Our goal is to focus our recovery actions and motivate partners and interested citizens to work with us on these actions to turn this situation around.
This initiative is a strategic approach to endangered species recovery that involves targeted resources and intensive human efforts to stabilize species’ populations. For each species, we have developed 5-year action plans that outline short-term efforts vital for stabilizing their populations and preventing their extinction.
Various activities implemented by NOAA Fisheries and its partners include:
Protecting and restoring habitat.
Encouraging community stewardship and citizen science.
Reducing manmade threats such as entanglement in fishing gear, vessel strikes, and noise pollution.
Breeding species in captivity.
Cooperating with other nations.
Conservation groups; academia; tribal nations; and federal, state, and local governments all make important contributions to the protection and recovery of endangered and threatened species. We work with these organizations in many ways to minimize harmful effects on listed species and work toward their recovery. Our work with partners includes regularly reviewing and recommending activities to help reduce threats to a listed species, entering into agreements to proactively conserve species before they need listing under the Endangered Species Act, providing grants to support species recovery, and developing and implementing conservation strategies under species recovery plans.
Cooperation With States
Section 6 of the ESA, titled “Cooperation with the States,” allows NOAA Fisheries and states to collaborate in the conservation of threatened and endangered species, and in the monitoring of candidate and recently delisted species.
Under section 6, 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 Recover 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.
Species Recovery Grants to States and Tribes
Species recovery grants support management, research, monitoring, and outreach activities. Eligible species include:
Species listed under the ESA (excluding Pacific salmonids, which may receive funding under the Pacific Salmon Recovery Fund).
Recently delisted species.
Species proposed for listing under the ESA.
Under the ESA, we must list species as endangered or threatened regardless of where they are found. The ESA benefits foreign species by restricting their commercial trade and facilitating bilateral and multilateral efforts and agreements.
We partner with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other nations through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. This partnership ensures that international trade does not threaten species survival. We are also a party to the Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife Protocol of the Cartagena Convention. Under this protocol, we collaborate with other nations of the wider Caribbean region to conserve and manage threatened and endangered species.
ESA listing of foreign species can also increase global awareness of the threats they face, which may fuel conservation efforts in their range countries.