USA passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act 49 years ago | Polarjournal
From humpback whales in Antarctic waters to polar bears in the Arctic, all marine mammals have benefited from the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act since 1972. The ecosystem-based approach was later adopted in international conservation agreements. Photo: Dr. Michael Wenger

Until the early 1970s, seals were killed for their fur in the U.S., thousands of dolphins died each year as bycatch in tuna fisheries, and whales were still hunted commercially. These and other practices had such a severe impact on populations that scientists and the public feared that populations could become depleted or that individual species might even become extinct. As a result, then-U.S. President Richard Nixon passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which went into effect nearly half a century ago, on October 21, 1972.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which applies on U.S. soil, in U.S. waters and to all U.S. citizens on the high seas, not only placed all species of marine mammals under protection, but for the first time also their habitats. This step was also urgently needed, because by that time many mating grounds and rookeries had already been directly damaged.

In the Arctic, scientists are studying how the decline in sea ice is affecting female walruses and their young. Photo: Heiner Kubny

The primary goal of the law is to manage in a way that maintains the health and stability of marine ecosystems and achieves and maintains optimal sustainable populations of marine mammals. The ecosystem-based approach first used in the MMPA was later incorporated into other U.S. laws, legislation in other countries, and international agreements such as the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR).

Between the Arctic and Antarctic, all marine mammal species from polar bears, seals, dolphins and whales to sea otters and manatees are protected under the MMPA. Among the key points included in the law is a prohibition on the taking, exploitation, and harassment of marine mammals, with exemptions for scientific purposes and also for unintentional bycatch in fisheries, each of which requires a permit from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Scientists have equipped a Weddell seal with various instruments. A video recorder records the seal’s underwater activity and sensors provide information on light, temperature and salinity. This research was permitted by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Photo: Peter Rejcek

As the U.S. Antarctic Program, funded by the National Science Foundation, reports on its website, scientists in Antarctica study many different marine mammal species, from Antarctic fur seals to humpback whales. Researchers are constantly refining their methods to minimize the impact of their research on wildlife. Thanks to technological advances in recent decades, they are increasingly successful in doing so. Today, for example, scientists can use non-invasive skin tags to track seal feeding behavior, use drones to study population sizes, and even take breath samples from whales.

Julia Hager, PolarJournal

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