USA Legal Protections

All cetaceans in U.S. waters are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). It is illegal for any person or vessel subject to U.S. jurisdiction to take any marine mammal, subject to certain exceptions. Take is defined in the MMPA as “to harass, hunt, capture, or kill, or attempt to harass, hunt, capture or kill any marine mammal.” The objectives of the MMPA are to maintain the health and stability of marine ecosystems and maintain marine mammal stocks at optimum sustainable population levels, taking into account the carrying capacity of the ecosystem.

Cetacean species or stocks that are below the optimum sustainable population level are considered “depleted” under the MMPA, and cetaceans listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) are also considered depleted under the MMPA. The cetacean species considered depleted under the MMPA that are not listed under the ESA (see Section 1.2) are:

  • Pantropical spotted dolphin, Pacific northeastern offshore stock
  • Eastern Spinner dolphin
  • Killer whale, AT1 Transient stock
  • Beluga, Yakutat Bay subgroup of Cook Inlet stock
  • Beluga, Sakhalin Bay-Nikolaya Bay-Amur River stock (proposed)
  • Common bottlenose dolphin, Western North Atlantic Central Florida Coastal stock
  • Common bottlenose dolphin, Western North Atlantic Northern Florida Coastal
  • Common bottlenose dolphin, Western North Atlantic Northern Migratory Coastal
  • Common bottlenose dolphin, Western North Atlantic South Carolina/Georgia Coastal stock
  • Common bottlenose dolphin, Western North Atlantic Southern Migratory Coastal

Permits or other authorizations are required under the MMPA to conduct activities that are likely to result in the "taking" of a marine mammal. When applicable requirements are met, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) can, inter alia, authorize the take or import of cetaceans (or their parts) for scientific research, enhancing the survival or recovery of a marine mammal species or stock, commercial and educational photography, public display, and incidental take during commercial fishing operations or non-fishery activities.

The MMPA also established the Marine Mammal Commission (Commission) as an independent agency of the U.S. government. The Commission advises and makes recommendations to both the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government regarding measures needed to promote the policies and provisions of the Act, which are intended to conserve marine mammals and marine ecosystems. In addition, the Commission supports a research program to identify and guide marine mammal conservation measures at local, regional, national, and international levels.

The MMPA contains provisions to address the incidental mortality and serious injury of marine mammals in both domestic and foreign commercial fisheries. With respect to foreign fisheries, section 101(a)(2) of the MMPA states that the Secretary of the Treasury shall ban the importation of commercial fish or products from fish which have been caught with commercial fishing technology which results in the incidental kill or incidental serious injury of ocean mammals in excess of United States standards. In August 2016, NOAA Fisheries Service issued a final rule implementing these import provisions of the MMPA. In March 2018, NOAA Fisheries published the Final List of Foreign Fisheries under this rule. More information on the rule and the published List of Foreign Fisheries are available online at:

The new rule requires nations exporting fish and fish products to the United States to be held to the same standards as U.S. commercial fishing operations. It establishes the criteria for evaluating a harvesting nation’s regulatory program for reducing marine mammal bycatch and the procedures required to receive authorization to import fish and fish products into the United States. To ensure effective implementation, the rule establishes a 5 year exemption period to allow foreign harvesting nations time to develop, as appropriate, regulatory programs comparable in effectiveness to U.S. programs. By 2022, all seafood product from fisheries seeking export to the U.S. is required to have received a comparability finding that the fisheries’ marine mammal protection standards are comparable in effectiveness to U.S. programs.

More information on NMFS’ marine mammal protection efforts is available online at:

Date Start

All cetaceans in U.S. waters are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).

CMP Sub-category
Western North Pacific Gray Whale CMP