The Marine Mammal Protection Act and Hawaiian Monk Seals

Juliette Uncovsky

In the 1970s, the environment became the subject of many policies, movements, and American culture. At a time when people began to gain awareness of the state of the Earth and discovered that humans were the main cause, several environmental policies were passed to curb the issues at hand. 

On October 21, 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) was passed. The MMPA aims to establish a national policy that prevents the decline of marine mammals and their habitats to the point where they would no longer function as significant species in their ecosystems. 

Three different entities are tasked with regulating this policy. First, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries is responsible for the protection of dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions, and whales. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for protecting walruses, manatees, polar bears, and sea otters. Finally, the Marine Mammal Commission is responsible for providing scientific oversight of national and international policies and actions of federal agencies that address the impacts that humans have on marine life and their ecosystems. 

All marine mammals are protected under the MMPA, while some are also protected under the Endangered Species Act, as well as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Under the MMPA, it is illegal to “take” any marine mammal in the United States. Take, can refer to the hunting, harassing, capturing, killing, or attempting to do so, of a marine mammal. It also makes the import or export of any marine mammal or parts of marine mammals illegal. 

There are some exclusions to this, such as importing/exporting for scientific research, use by Alaska Natives for clothing or handicrafts, and the incidental take (not intentional) of marine mammals during fishing operations by commercial fisheries, to name a few. Some other tasks of the MMPA include; managing the take of marine mammals through permits and authorizations, investigating and prosecuting permit violations, partnering with other nations on the protection standards of marine mammals, evaluating marine mammal statuses (threatened, endangered, etc.), investigating unusual mammal mortality, and working with Alaska Native organizations to conserve marine mammal populations in Alaska.

Marine Mammals are vital components of marine ecosystems and serve as key indicators of the overall health and stability of the ocean. The Hawaiian Monk Seal is protected under the MMPA as well as the Endangered Species Act and the state of Hawaii. It is one of the most endangered seal species in the world Hawaiian Monk Seals are found around all of the Hawaiian Islands, but mostly in the smaller Northwest islands. They are not found past 1,000 miles from the archipelago (see map below). The seals are an endemic species, which means they are only found in a specific region, and nowhere else in the world.

Newborn seals are born black, but as they grow they become dark grey to brown with a light-grey yellowish belly. Most Hawaiian Monk Seals have unique white markings on their bellies that help identify them. 

Hawaiian Monk Seals can stay underwater for 20 minutes and can dive up to 1800 meters in depth. They are considered “generalist” feeders meaning that they eat a variety of foods depending on what is available. This can include squids, eels, and crustaceans. They live in solidarity, unlike other seal species that live in colonies. Often they will stay near other seals, in small groups, but not close enough physically.

The population has been declining for six decades but is slowly recovering due to the passing of the MMPA. Currently, there are only 1570 seals. However, one of the primary causes of the Hawaiian Monk Seal population decline is entanglement. Marine debris and remnants of fishing supplies cause injury and death to these species. Another reason for their decline is habitat loss. Because seals spend their time in the sea as well as on land, erosion and sea-level rise have reduced the amount of land space the seals can occupy. Human-seal interaction can also be detrimental due to boat strikes, vehicle strikes, and intentional feeding. Other threats include shark predation, intentional killing, disease and contaminants, and fishery interactions.

Hawaiian Monk Seals are one of the most endangered seal species and marine mammals in the world. A rise in human activity has caused their populations to dramatically decline. The passing of the Marine Mammal Protection Act has slowly aided the seal population to increase, proving that the Marine Mammal Protection Act is effective and gives hope to endangered and threatened marine mammals all over the world.

Sources: NOAA