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Marine Mammal Conservation: MMPA and IWC

In the early light of dawn, the scene of stranded whales casts a somber shadow on the beauty of the natural world. Ric O'Barry, a fervent marine conservationist, shares a compelling insight: "The dolphin's smile is nature's greatest deception. It creates the illusion they're always happy". This observation is a gateway to understanding marine mammals' complex, often hidden lives—beings of profound intelligence and intricate social networks navigating a world fraught with human-made perils.

Marine mammals include three orders - Carnivora (polar bears, sea otters, walruses, seals, sea lions), Sirenia (manatees, dugongs), and Cetacea (baleen and toothed whales); all of whom play critical roles in the health and balance of marine ecosystems. Their elaborate communication songs, problem-solving abilities, and social complexities reflect a cognitive depth that rivals our own. Marine mammals have become deeply integrated in human culture and are revered as sentient companions and reincarnations of deities and descendants lost. However, this social ideology is reasonably fresh-caught as they endure many stressful circumstances, including commercial whaling and sealing, bycatch, entanglement, habitat destruction, boat strikes, disease, noise pollution, chemical pollution, and exploitation for the captivity industry.  This leaves us with a profound ethical responsibility towards these dignitaries of the sea.

Whaling, dating back to 6000 BC, dramatically shifted with 19th-century technologies like steam-powered ships and explosive harpoons, devastating whale populations by the 1900s. The environmental and political zeitgeist of the 1960s-70s, marked by a burgeoning push for activism, catalyzed significant legislative milestones in conservation. Introduced by John Dingle, the establishment of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) (16 U.S.C. § 1361) in 1972 initiated groundbreaking conservation measures. The legislation prohibits the "take" of marine mammals and enacts a moratorium on the trade of these animals, parts, or products - with exceptions. These exceptions include takes in the nature of incidental fishery operations, small volumes or native subsistence, strandings, military operations, research, and pinniped-fishery interactions (Section 120). Dually administered by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the MMPA defines "take" to include the acts of attempting to harass, hunt, restrain, collect, capture, or kill any marine mammal or parts thereof, and defines "harass" as an act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance which might inure the animal, or cause disturbance to their behaviors (migration, breathing, breeding, etc.). This means if someone did feel the need to bother a marine mammal in any way, they could face fines of over $20,000 per civil violation, and up to $100,000 and imprisonment for a year for more serious criminal charges. Since its introduction, the MMPA has been amended several times, though it has yet to address a matter of grave concern - that marine mammals in captivity fall under the administration of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), a division of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) who has a very different idea of animal welfare standards than most marine conservationists.

The evolution of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) aimed to address the pressing issues of widespread whaling and strive for global consensus on the protection of whale species. Established in 1946, the IWC is an intergovernmental body acting under the authority of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) with 88 member countries that establish whaling quotas and whale sanctuaries. In 1982, an essential action occurred: the global whaling moratorium was imposed, which aimed to halt commercial whaling so as to allow populations to recover from overexploitation. Despite this, controversies persist- particularly between pro-whaling nations like Japan, Norway, and Iceland who seek quotas for cultural and economic reasons, and those advocating for an outright ban on commercial whaling. The former aim was to continue whale meat consumerism, but these products have extremely high mercury levels due to bioaccumulation, substantial enough to cause chronic illness and birth deformities in humans. Those who claim the programs have educational value seem to miss the point that unnatural environments will produce unnatural biological indicators. These debates underscore the ongoing struggle to balance conservation efforts with traditional practices, even as the moratorium remains a critical yet contentious component of the IWC's mission. Though profound in efforts to conserve marine mammals, the IWC is only concerned with cetaceans (whales and dolphins). Separate, though not as focused or robust, international organizations exist for the remaining groups of marine mammals, and significant agreements have been made regarding their safety. However, there is a current lack of specifically targeted protections for these less charismatic groups.

The saga of marine mammal conservation is intricately woven with the threads of vital legislative measures. These initiatives mark the concerted efforts of nations to bridge national legislation with international cooperation, all in pursuit of a common goal—to ensure the safety and well-being of marine mammals. Yet, the shadow of marine mammal captivity looms, with facilities like SeaWorld igniting a reevaluation of societal norms. These hostile environments are far too small and highly stress-inducing, causing bodily degradation and disease for animals so that many don’t come close to living out their potential lifespan. The discovery of over 3,600 dolphins and whales in captivity today and the stark figures relating to deaths (both of animals and employees) in such facilities have fueled a paradigm shift spurred on by the revealing narratives of documentaries like "The Cove" and "Blackfish." These stories have brought to light captive marine mammals' plights and rallied public support for their freedom and well-being. 

The activism that is spearheaded by figures like Ric O'Barry and Sylvia Earl, coupled with the efforts of organizations such as the Sea Shepherd and Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), underscore a powerful movement against the threats facing marine mammals. These entities champion direct action, legal avenues, and educational initiatives to foster a global marine conservation ethic. Among these, a new amendment to the MMPA and AWA has been circulating: the Strengthening Welfare in Marine Settings Act (SWIMS)(H.R. 7135 and S. 3694), which would prohibit the taking or importation of "any orca, beluga whale, false killer whale, or pilot whale for the purpose of public display". While the proposal only insists on protecting a limited number of species and fails to note robust rehabilitation or release regimes, it could revolutionize the captive mammal industry... with enough support. Successes in activism have also aided in the recent termination of the Miami Seaquarium lease (March 2024), the cease-fire with sea lions at San Francisco Bay's Pier 39, and initiatives such as the Trash Free Seas Alliance and Whale Safe system. The creation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), adherence to the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and the development of species-specific recovery plans embody the collaborative spirit of nations, NGOs, and international coalitions dedicated to securing a future for marine ecosystems. 

How You Can Make a Difference:
  • Volunteer or support reputable conservation organizations, i.e. the Marine Mammal Center, Dolphin Project, and Greenpeace.

  • Advocate for conservation policies at local and international levels.

  • Raise awareness through education about marine mammals.

  • Adopt sustainable practices that contribute to marine ecosystem health.

  • Opt for eco-tourism opportunities.

  • Boycott companies known for exploiting these animals, like SeaWorld, Marineland, Miami Seaquarium, and Shedd Aquarium.

  • Watch for international conventions such as the Society for Marine Mammology 25th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals (11-15 November 2024) and the 7th International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC7) (13-18 October 2024), and local peaceful demonstration opportunities such as the Dolphin Project's Miami Seaquarium protest (14 April 2024).

Exploring marine mammal conservation reveals it's more than laws; it's about rethinking our bond with the ocean. This narrative blends policy, activism, and a conservation ethic, guiding transformative action. It urges us to cherish the intrinsic value of marine life and protect the boundless beauty of our oceans. Learning from the past and current efforts, we're poised to secure a thriving ocean for future generations.


Cover photo credit: Sea Shepherd

Dolphin Project (2024). Miami Seaquarium. The Dolphin Project.

Dougherty, S. D. (2013). The Marine Mammal Protection Act: Fostering unjust captivity practices since 1972. Journal of Land Use & Environmental Law, 28(2), 337–367.

H.R.7145 - 118th Congress (2023-2024): SWIMS Act of 2024.

Kershaw, J.L., & Hall A.J. (2019). Mercury in cetaceans: Exposure, bioaccumulation and toxicity. Science of the Total Environment, 694.

Kolmaš, M. (2021). International pressure and Japanese withdrawal from the International Whaling Commission: when shaming fails. Australian Journal of International Affairs, 75(2), 197–216.

NMFS. (2019). The MMPA of 1972 as amended through 2018.

Roman, J., Altman, I., Dunphy-Daly, M. M., Campbell, C., Jasny, M., & Read, A. J. (2013). The Marine Mammal Protection Act at 40: status, recovery, and future of U.S. marine mammals. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1286(1), 29–49.

1 Kommentar

Very informative article! Thank you for posting this.

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