Marine Mammal Commission

Large Whales and Vessel Strikes

Blue whale diving near container ship

Blue whale diving near container ship (John Calambokidis, Cascadia Research, via NOAA)

Why are large whales at risk and what can be done to help them?

Large whales are vulnerable to being struck and killed or injured by vessels of all sizes. This is an issue of great concern to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Congress, the media, and the public, especially when it involves endangered whale populations or impacts the operations or safety of mariners. It is important to understand how much of a threat vessel strike is to large whales and what options can effectively reduce the risk of injury and death.

Whale behavior can increase their risk of vessel strike

People often wonder why whales don’t simply move out of the way when vessels approach. High levels of ocean noise and the fast speed of some vessels may complicate vessel avoidance. The biology and behavior of each whale species can also affect its risk of vessel strike, highlighting the need for speed or routing measures that specifically address the needs of vulnerable species in particular regions.

North Atlantic right whales

North Atlantic right whales are harder for mariners to see than most whale species because they do not have a dorsal fin. Mothers and calves spend a lot of time resting and nursing near the surface, increasing their vulnerability to vessel strike. Right whales feeding just below or at the surface are also at a higher risk of vessel strike.

Rice’s whales

Tagging studies have shown that Rice’s whales spend up to 88% of their time at night within 15 meters of the surface. This behavior puts them at a high risk of being struck at night.

Is vessel strike a big threat to whales?

Even though whales are large animals, collisions with boats of all sizes can injure and kill them. In the U.S., vessel strike has been identified as a major threat to many large whale species, including North Atlantic and North Pacific right whales, Rice’s whales, blue whales, humpback whales, gray whales, and fin whales.

How do we learn about vessel strikes?

Information regarding vessel strikes is obtained when mariners or others observe and report a vessel strike event, a floating or beached whale carcass, or an injured whale. Vessel strikes can kill or injure large whales in two ways. Blunt force trauma, which occurs when the whale is hit by the bow or hull of a ship, is often not apparent on intact stranded whales but is detected by internal examination after death. Signs of blunt force trauma include bruising and hemorrhage in the blubber and muscle and broken bones. If a carcass is too decomposed, scientists may not be able to detect signs that a vessel strike occurred. Acute trauma, when a whale is hit by the propeller of a vessel, often results in a series of parallel lacerations that can usually be seen by external examination of a carcass or live whale, as seen in the photo below. Analysis of the wounds can help estimate the size of the vessel that was involved in the collision.

A whale surfaces and scars made by a boat propeller are visible across its back.

Right whale swimming offshore of South Carolina on Jan. 20, 2011 with propeller wounds across its back. The whale has not been re-sighted since.  Credit: EcoHealth Alliance (NOAA permit #594-1759).

Because not all deaths are observed (for example, when a whale is struck offshore and the carcass sinks rather than washing up onshore), scientists use the term cryptic mortality to refer to whale deaths that go undetected. The percentage of undetected deaths due to vessel strike can vary between species depending on distribution and monitoring frequency. For example, North Atlantic right whales are found close to shore, are frequently monitored, and healthy right whales are fairly robust, making them more likely to float after death. Despite these factors increasing the likelihood of detection, approximately 64% of right whale deaths by whatever cause are never observed. Cryptic mortality of other large whale species is likely much higher.

What options are there to reduce the risk of a strike?

The backs of a mother and calf North Atlantic right whale stick out barely above the water. The image highlights the challenge for vessels of spotting whales and avoiding them.

North Atlantic right whales can be difficult for mariners to see because they have no dorsal fin. Mother-calf pairs also spend a lot of time resting at the surface, increasing their risk of vessel strike. (NOAA Permit #594-1467-02)

Depending on the specific needs and behavior of the species at risk, the pattern of vessel traffic, and the areas of highest risk, several options can help reduce the risk of vessel strikes in U.S. waters: Traffic separation schemes and routing measures, Areas To Be Avoided, and Speed Limits.

A map shows the southern coast of California, with a large coastal area marked as a voluntary speed reduction zone. Also marked is a portion of ocean where vessel traffic lanes are, as well as multiple parallel lines denoting traffic separation.

Examples of Vessel Speed Limits,  Areas To Be Avoided, and traffic separation schemes are seen along the coast of Southern California (Jess Morten, NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries).

Traffic separation schemes and routing measures are measures that require an analysis of whale distribution and movements, vessel traffic patterns, and navigational hazards. Once a route has been identified that reduces the potential for overlap between whales and vessels, the proposed new routing is considered through a public review and comment process that is initiated by the U.S. Coast Guard, in consultation with NOAA. Once the proposed measures have been adopted domestically, they are taken to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) for review and final approval. The new shipping lanes or routes are then incorporated into navigational charts and advisories for both foreign and domestic vessels traversing U.S. waters.

Areas To Be Avoided are areas that require special protections from vessel traffic due to frequent and persistent use by large whales. Once identified, they go through a similar public review and approval process, by the U.S. Coast Guard and then IMO, as routing measures. They can apply to all or certain classes of vessels, can be voluntary or mandatory, and can be implemented year-round or seasonally. Informal areas to be avoided can also be identified and implemented in U.S. waters outside of the formal U.S. Coast Guard and IMO process.

Vessel speed limits can be voluntary or mandatory and implemented in specific places of high vessel strike risk year-round, seasonally, at certain times of day, or as needed when whales are present. Studies have shown that 10-knot speed limits are the most effective in reducing risk of vessel strike mortality and serious injury of large whales. Exceptions to the speed limits are permitted as necessary to ensure human safety and safety of navigation.

Are small boats part of the problem?

Yes, small boats can also injure and kill whales, especially calves. In fact, five of the 12 North Atlantic right whale deaths in U.S. waters that were caused by vessel strike from 2008-2022 were caused by vessels smaller than 65 feet in length.

Do vessel strike reduction measures prioritize whales over human safety?

Human safety and safety of navigation are always a top priority. Vessel speed rules implemented on the U.S. East Coast to reduce strikes of North Atlantic right whales, for example, allow deviations from the 10-knot speed limit whenever situations or conditions threaten human or navigational safety. It should be noted, however, that speed limits, especially for smaller vessels, may actually increase human safety. For example, in cases when small boats have struck North Atlantic right whales, the vessel operators often did not see the whale prior to the strike, or if they did, it was too late to avoid a collision. Collisions at high speeds can damage vessels and cause serious or fatal injuries to the people onboard.

Where have vessel strike reduction measures been implemented?

U.S. East Coast

A North Atlantic right whale breaching the waters surface with a cargo ship in the background

A North Atlantic right whale and cargo ship (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission).

After Canada implemented routing measures in the Bay of Fundy in 2003, NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard implemented recommended routing for vessels traveling through important right whale habitats in Cape Cod Bay and near ports in Georgia and Florida in 2006. In the following years, with approval from the IMO, the shipping lanes into and out of Boston were shifted further north to reduce overlap with whale foraging grounds. The IMO also designated the Great South Channel, off of Cape Cod, as a voluntary Area to be Avoided from April through July.

NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) adopted vessel speed measures in 2008 to reduce vessel strikes of North Atlantic right whales. The rule requires that vessels 65 feet and longer travel at speeds no greater than 10 knots when transiting designated seasonal management areas (SMAs). SMAs are only active in certain places and times of year when right whales are present. At the same time, NMFS implemented a separate dynamic management area program that would allow for voluntary speed restrictions to be established in areas and at times when right whales are detected outside of active SMAs. In 2022, after reviewing the data on right whale vessel strikes, NMFS proposed changes to the vessel speed rule to provide greater protections. Those changes included replacing the SMAs with five Seasonal Speed Zones, expanding the rule to include vessels between 35 and 65 feet in length, making speed limits in dynamic speed zones mandatory, and enhancing data collection in support of safety deviations.

Final action by NMFS on the proposed amendments is still pending.

U.S. West Coast

In 2013, recommendations made by the U.S. Coast Guard and NOAA prompted the IMO to shift shipping lanes off San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Long Beach into areas with less overlap between vessels and large whales. In addition, the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries established voluntary speed reduction zones from May through December. During those times, vessels 300 gross tons and larger are requested to travel 10 knots or less. The vessel speed reduction zones now include the traffic separation schemes off San Francisco and southern California, the Greater Farallones, Cordell Bank, and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuaries, and an expanded Area to be Avoided that encompasses the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and adjacent waters.

Alaska and the Arctic

Humpback whale in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska.

Humpback whale in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska. (Christine Gabriele, Glacier Bay National Park).

Although not specifically developed to address vessel strikes of large whales, the U.S. Coast Guard and the IMO adopted voluntary routing measures, including recommended routes, precautionary areas, and Areas to be Avoided in the Bering Strait and Bering Sea in 2017. The U.S. Coast Guard is currently developing similar routing measures for the Arctic Ocean, north of the Bering Strait. In response to the U.S. Coast Guard’s 2018 request for information, the Commission recommended routing measures and vessel speed restrictions in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas that would decrease the risk of vessel strikes of large whales that migrate through the Bering Strait, along the western Alaska coast, and Barrow Canyon. The Commission recommended also that vessels avoid the Hanna Shoal area in the Chukchi Sea, a summer foraging area for walruses. In Southeast Alaska, vessel speed measures are in place in Glacier Bay National Park to reduce the likelihood of vessels striking humpback whales.

International

Vessel strike reduction measures are not unique to the United States. Other countries, including Canada and Panama, have implemented similar measures to protect marine mammals. Vessels also have been requested to transit further offshore around the southern coast of Sri Lanka in order to reduce the risk of vessel strikes for blue whales. Voluntary mitigation measures also have been established in the northwestern Mediterranean Sea. In 2024, Greece committed to establishing a monitoring and early warning system that detects whales in real-time and urges ships to slow down or change course to avoid collisions.

Have vessel strike reduction measures been successful?

Vessel strike reduction measures, including speed limits, have been successful in reducing the likelihood and lethality of vessel strikes of large whales. On the East Coast, the vessel strike mortality rate of right whales decreased from 10 deaths in the 10 years prior to implementation of the rule to four deaths in the 10 years after the rule was implemented. There was an apparent increase in the number of serious and non-serious injuries after the rule was implemented; however, this may have been influenced by increased reporting during that time. On the West Coast, vessel strike reduction efforts may have reduced vessel-strike mortalities by 9 to 13%.

The success of vessel strike reduction measures depends on operator compliance, which has been a challenge. Compliance with voluntary measures has been low, and in some areas on the West Coast, resulted in little to no reduction in the estimated vessel strike mortality. Mandatory measures have achieved up to 88% compliance on the East Coast, and incentive measures have achieved 78% compliance on the West Coast. Ensuring compliance with, and ultimately the effectiveness of, future measures is essential to reducing injury and mortality.

A diving blue whale with a NOAA scientific vessel in the background.

A blue whale surfacing in the North Atlantic ocean during a NOAA research cruise (NOAA Fisheries Permit No. 779-1633).

What about technologies to detect whales?

Aerial and vessel-based surveys and passive acoustic monitoring technology are used to identify and track the presence of large whales. In some cases, these technologies can detect whales in near real-time and it is possible to alert mariners to their presence. Additional technologies, including satellite detection and thermal imagery, are being developed to further enhance whale detection capabilities. NOAA’s ASTER^3 program was recently established to advance the conservation and recovery of protected species through innovative technology.

A drone flies above a surfacing whale as it drops a tag down onto the whale's back.

Scientists use drones to drop tags on North Atlantic Right Whales (Ocean Alliance/Chris Zadra, NOAA Fisheries Permit #24359).

Each tool has limitations, so managers will likely use a combination of tools to build whale detection capability as these new technologies advance. For example, visual surveys only detect animals near the surface and rely on observer presence and good weather conditions, while passive acoustic monitoring can detect whales subsurface when observers are not present, but requires whales to be vocalizing. Multiple technologies, used in combination with traditional vessel strike reduction measures, will likely be the most effective way to reduce the risk of vessel strike to large whales.

How will climate change affect risk and the effectiveness of reduction measures?

Climate change and warming ocean temperatures can cause shifts in the distribution of marine mammals and their prey. As marine mammals move into new areas without established protections, they may be at a higher risk from human activities. This phenomenon was observed as North Atlantic right whales moved into the Gulf of St. Lawrence in search of their copepod prey. Following that shift in whale distribution, increases in vessel strike mortalities were observed. Similar situations are likely to continue occurring in the future. We need to ensure that marine mammal monitoring programs and modelers have the capacity to detect or predict these changes in distribution as early as possible, and that managers are able to quickly and adaptively implement and amend protection measures as necessary.

LEARN MORE

General Information

IWC – Ship Strikes: collisions between whales and vessels

NOAA Fisheries – Reducing vessel strikes to North Atlantic right whales

NOAA Fisheries – Vessel strikes 

MMC – Federal agency approaches to reducing vessel strike of cetaceans webinar 

NOAA Fisheries – Vessel Information Fact Sheet

NOAA Fisheries Background Paper on North Atlantic Right Whale Vessel Strikes

Selected Peer-Reviewed Publications

Cryptic mortality of North Atlantic right whales. Richard M. Pace III et al. 2021.  Society for Conservation Biology.

Modeling speed restrictions to mitigate lethal collisions between ships and whales in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, USA. David N. Wiley et al. 2011. Biological Conservation.

Modeling Whale Deaths From Vessel Strikes to Reduce the Risk of Fatality to Endangered Whales. R. Cotton Rockwood et al. 2021. Frontiers.

Mariner cooperation with recommended lanes in two critical habitats of the North Atlantic right whale, Eubalaena glacialis. Lisa C. Neyman et al. 2023. FWRI Technical Report 24.

Estimating effectiveness of speed reduction measures for decreasing whale-strike mortality in a high-risk region. R. Cotton Rockwood et al. 2020. Endangered Species Research.

 Assessing the lethality of ship strikes on whales using simple biophysical models. Dan E. Kelley et al. 2020. Marine Mammal Science.

Ocean Regime Shift is Driving Collapse of the North Atlantic Right Whale Population. Erin L. Meyer-Gutbrod et al. 2021. Oceanography.

North Atlantic Right Whale Tagging Workshop

Co-hosted by the Marine Mammal Commission (MMC), NOAA Fisheries (NMFS), the Office of Naval Research (ONR), and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO)

September 12-14, 2023

Update: A copy of the workshop report is available here.

Workshop Objectives

1.) review key knowledge gaps and data needs regarding the movements, life history, and ecology of North Atlantic right whales (NARWs);

2.) review the history of satellite telemetry and evaluate progress in tag attachment technologies and follow-up studies; and

3.) generate knowledge to inform planning and permitting decisions regarding potential tagging of NARWs

Workshop Structure

Day 1 consisted of an open session with presentations to the assembled experts and virtual attendees on research needs for NARWs, the history of telemetry tag development and use for large whales, the permitting environment in the U.S. and Canada, and tagging best practices.

Days 2 and 3 were closed sessions where invited experts engaged in-depth on key information that can be gained from tagging, the evolution of tag technology and design, follow-up studies to examine the effects of tagging on baleen whales, and the utility of different tag types with respect to identified research questions. Invited experts also considered potential future NARW tagging and  follow-up monitoring to address important data deficiencies.

Day 1 Recordings

 

 

Day 1 Agenda

First calf of the 2020 season (Clearwater Marine Aquarium under NOAA permit #20556-01)

Welcome and introduction – Frances Gulland (MMC) and Mike Weise (ONR)

Introductory talk: Telemetry data and the conservation and management of NARWsGreg Donovan (International Whale Commission, retired)

Facilitated panel discussion on gaps in knowledge of NARW ecology and movements pertinent to management needs, with emphasis on information that could be provided by telemetry data – Véronique Lesage (DFO), Colleen Coogan (NMFS-Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office), Clay George (NMFS-Southeast Regional Office), Sean Hayes (NMFS-Northeast Fisheries Science Center), Amy Knowlton (New England Aquarium), Erin Meyer-Gutbrod (University of South Carolina)

Permitting environment: Government officials will summarize the U.S. and Canadian regulatory context when contemplating tagging endangered large whalesAmy Sloan (NMFS-Office of Protected Resources), Laurence Denault-Tremblay (DFO)

Brief overview of best practice guidelines for cetacean taggingMike Weise (ONR)

History of NARW taggingDave Weller (NMFS-Southwest Fisheries Science Center)

Review of types of tags used to date on baleen whales: Experts in tagging and tag development will provide an overview of different telemetry tag types and on which species they have been deployed, deployment durations, anchor design, target locations on animals, any known and/or suspected effects based on follow-up studies, data to be gathered from the tags, and overall challenges and opportunities

Discussion and Q&A session – Peter Thomas (MMC)

Wrap-up public session – Adèle Labbé (DFO)

Additional presentations and meeting recordings will be added as they become available. Please contact the presenters for permission to use any images or data from their slides.  Note: embedded videos and animations have been disabled.

 

For a copy of the public agenda, please click here. The list of expert participants can be found here.

A summary of the tagging workshop was presented by Kim Damon-Randall (NMFS) at the 2023 North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium meeting in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

 

For more information, contact Brady O’Donnell (bodonnell@mmc.gov)

Learn More

A workshop on effects of tagging NARW and related report (Kraus et al. 2000)

Report of the Large Whale Tagging Workshop (Weller 2008)

Report of the Joint ONR IWC NOAA Workshop on Cetacean Tag Development, Tag Follow-up and Tagging Best Practices (ONR/NOAA/IWC 2020) and Workshop Proceedings (ONR 2009)

Best practice guidelines for cetacean tagging (Andrews et al. 2019)

The Value of Marine Mammals

A humpback whale feeds near one of the many whale watching boats that visit Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary each year. Photo taken under NOAA Fisheries Permit #775-1875 (Ari Friedlaender, Duke University).

Why should we conserve and protect marine mammals? What is the value of a blue whale to the average American? What is the intrinsic worth of a sea lion? How does a walrus contribute to Alaska Native food security and cultural self-identity?

Conserving marine wildlife can benefit communities all across America in a variety of ways. Studies have shown that certain species of marine wildlife, including whales and dolphins, are increasingly important drivers of economic growth for tourism and related industries. Marine mammals also provide value through “ecosystem services” – benefits that people receive from healthy ecosystems, including tourism revenue, carbon sequestration, and even increased ocean productivity in some regions. Marine species also have inherent cultural value to the American public and many people want to know that these animals exist, even if they never see them in the wild.  Furthermore, many Alaskan Native communities depend on marine mammals for food and cultural continuity and identity. These intertwined benefits provide a strong economic incentive to preserve and conserve marine mammals.

Ecosystem Benefits

Marine mammals play important roles in coastal and ocean ecosystems, from a local to global scale. The benefits of conserving marine species stem in part from the value of the ecosystem services provided by the species.

The “whale pump” increases primary productivity (from Roman and McCarthy 2011).

Cetaceans

For example, large whales have been shown to have a role in enhancing primary productivity of marine ecosystems by bringing nitrogen and other nutrients to the ocean surface through their excretions, a process known as “the whale pump.” These nutrients support phytoplankton growth, which provides food for a variety of marine organisms, including marine mammals. The enhancement of primary productivity in coastal waters is a type of ecosystem service that can result in a more productive ocean, which may ultimately increase revenues and employment in the fisheries sector.

Sentinel Species:

While marine mammals play a role in keeping ecosystems healthy, they can also serve as sentinel species, or an early warning system, for when ecosystem health is degrading. For example, organochlorine contaminants like DDT were used for decades and persist in the environment. These compounds accumulate in California sea lions and increase risk of cancer, raising awareness of potential dangers for humans and other animals eating such tainted seafood. Similarly, biotoxins produced by harmful algal blooms (HABs) are associated with marine mammal mortality and also affect human health and food security. A 2022 study found that stomach contents of walruses in the Arctic had biotoxin levels similar to those known to cause illness or death in humans. Understanding marine mammal health helps us evaluate ocean and coastal health, and also its implications for human health and well-being.

Due to its huge size, the carbon stored in a whale’s body can also be important to carbon sequestration. When a whale dies, its carcass can sink and create a “whale fall,” taking the stored carbon within it to the ocean depths. While some of the carcass supports benthic ecosystems, some of the carbon is buried in the sediment, sequestered for millennia. Reducing carbon in our atmosphere is a critical aspect of fighting climate change, something that whales help with in both life and death. The International Monetary Fund estimated the ecosystem services of one whale could be valued at over $2 million, with a combined worth of all large whales estimated at over $1 trillion. Other researchers caution that there are many assumptions which go into such estimates and discussion about carbon credits and climate change policy require further refinement.

Sea Otters

Sea otters, beloved for their fuzzy and charismatic appearance, also make substantive contributions to coastal health. Perhaps the most well-known example is sea otter consumption of urchins, which in turn reduces urchin predation on kelp, allowing kelp forest habitats to thrive, reducing shoreline erosion and promoting biodiversity. However, sea otters are proving to be important to other habitats as well – in some parts of British Columbia sea otters dig for clams in seagrass beds, creating disturbance that promotes seagrass reproduction and enhanced genetic diversity. In Elkhorn Slough, California, ecosystem effects of predation on crabs by recovered sea otter populations have resulted in healthier seagrass beds and greater resilience against human-caused nutrient loading of Elkhorn Slough. Sea otter presence promotes healthy and resilient eelgrass beds, which, like kelp forests, are important nearshore habitats and key to preventing shoreline erosion and sequestering carbon. Eelgrass beds also serve as habitat for diverse species, including a nursery environment for commercially valuable finfish (e.g., salmon and rockfish).

 

A sea otter rests on it's back amongst eelgrass. The green eelgrass is visible poking out of the water next to the sea otter.

A sea otter swims in amongst eelgrass (Photo: Joe Tomoleoni/USGS).

Contributions to Coastal Economies and Ecotourism

Marine mammals also serve an economic role by attracting tourists and associated revenues in coastal economies.

 

Whale watchers in Stellwagen Bank observe a humpback whale (Photo: Anne Smrcina/NOAA).

Marine mammal viewing in the wild is part of the lucrative ocean-based tourism and recreation industry. The most recent available data (NOAA 2018) reports a coastal tourism and recreation contribution of $143 billion GDP to the national economy, out producing GDP contributions from commercial ($67 billion) and recreational ($41 billion) fisheries combined ($108 billion) the same year. In 2012, the whale-watching industry generated approximately 2 billion dollars in revenue and supported roughly 13,000 jobs worldwide. Recent location-specific analyses show the importance of whale and dolphin watching and ecotourism to coastal communities. A 2020 study conducted by the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary reported that whale watching contributed $76 million in labor income and $182 million in sales annually to the sanctuary and surrounding community. On the other side of the country, a NOAA-funded study found that whale watching in 2019 supported 850 jobs and $23.4 million in labor income for the state of Alaska. Southern Resident Killer Whale viewing in San Juan County, Washington, contributes over $12 million in state revenue and 1,800 jobs. In Bali, Indonesia, dolphin watching attracts at least 37,000 tourists per year, supports above-average incomes for tour boat operators, and generates substantial profits for local businesses. Ecotourism has thus become a vital contributor to many coastal economies and has fostered public appreciation for marine wildlife while simultaneously providing local communities with a long-term source of jobs and revenues.

In addition to economic benefits, marine mammals can also present economic conflict through fisheries interactions like competition for prey. Marine mammals sometimes engage in depredation, or the removal of bait or catch from fishermen’s lines or nets, resulting in losses for the fishermen. In southeast Alaska, fishermen catching urchins, clams, and crabs have voiced concerns that sea otters are reducing their catches by consuming these species as part of their regular diet. The impact of fisheries taking the prey of endangered Steller sea lions in Alaska or Southern Resident Killer whales in Washington has long been a concern and controversy. Read more about fisheries interactions and bycatch, and policies and efforts to resolve these conflicts.

Marine mammals also help to drive business in educational, public-display facilities such as aquariums and zoos. In 2016, over 90 million people in the U.S. paid an average admission price of $22 to visit institutions accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums that housed marine mammals. In a 2018 survey, AZA-accredited institutions contributed more than $22.5 billion to the U.S. economy and supported 198,000 full-time jobs, a reflection of the value of being able to see and learn more about marine mammals, and wildlife in general, in the United States.

Marine mammal viewing in the wild must be done with care, as it can lead to unintended ecological consequences for certain species. For example, dolphin-watching tours in Hawaii that target resting spinner dolphins may be compromising the health of individual dolphins as well as the population as a whole. This issue was discussed at length during the Commission’s 2019 annual meeting in Kona. Strong support was voiced from numerous stakeholders, including tour operators, for the establishment of minimum approach distances to spinner dolphins and area closures for swimmers and vessels during critical spinner dolphin resting hours. Learn more about these protections on the NMFS website.

A spinner dolphin leaps out the water (Photo: NOAA).

A spinner dolphin leaps out the water (Photo: NOAA).

Cultural Significance

Many Americans support actions to protect our oceans and coasts and preserve biodiversity, including marine mammals.

Willingness to pay (WTP) values for recovering the endangered Hawaiian monk seal have been found to vary spatially across the U.S., with areas of high WTP values being found in both coastal and inland areas of the country (map adapted from Johnston et al. 2015 by D. Jarvis, Clark University)

A 2011 study focused on public willingness to pay to “down-list” or “delist” species listed as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Three endangered marine mammal species found in U.S. waters were included in that study—the North Atlantic right whale, North Pacific right whale, and Hawaiian monk seal. The study estimated that U.S. households are willing to pay an average of $71.62 and $73.16, respectively, for the recovery of the two right whale species, and $66.31 for the recovery of Hawaiian monk seals. A case study in Florida found residents of Citrus County were willing to donate an average of $10.25 a year to protect the manatees in their county, and that the manatees contributed ~$8.2 million to the county in tourism-related and ecosystem services value. This type of study builds our understanding of people’s perspectives regarding the inherent value of recovering marine species as we seek to balance the costs and benefits of conserving marine species with the economic needs and values of coastal communities.

A NOAA monk seal volunteer takes notes (Photo: NOAA Fisheries).

Americans who have grown up on the coast watching marine mammals may have an emotional investment in the survival of species associated with a geographic location and ecosystem, as part of the human connection to the environment referred to as a “sense of place.” These connections are evident through various citizen-science groups across the country, dedicated to observing and protecting marine mammals, such as Gotham Whale in New York City, or the Hawaiian monk seal volunteers in Hawaii.

Cultural and social values are an important consideration in marine mammal conservation. The North Atlantic right whale, for example, has a long and difficult history of co-existence with humans. The right whale was aggressively hunted by European and early American whalers, and by the end of the 19th century the population was severely depleted. The right whale was hunted for oil which helped to fuel the Industrial Revolution and American economy at the expense of the species’ population health. The potential extinction of a species like the North Atlantic right whale from the threats of fishing gear entanglement and ship strike would be a loss on many fronts, including disruption to ecosystem health and a reduction in biodiversity. But it would also represent a loss in our centuries old history of human-whale interactions and a failure to recover a species decimated by the quest for economic gain.

Marine Mammals and Alaska Native Peoples

Kaktovik residents begin butchering a 44' Bowhead whale on September 5, 2012 image

Kaktovik residents starting to cut up a bowhead whale on September 5, 2012 (Dania Moss)

Food Security and Sovereignty:

The Inuit Circumpolar Council Alaska (ICC) has published reports outlining the importance of food security and food sovereignty in the Arctic. To Alaska Native peoples, the two concepts are inextricably linked as expressed in the ICC’s report on food security: “the natural right of all Inuit to be part of the ecosystem, to access food and to care-take, protect and respect all of life, land, water and air. It allows for all Inuit to obtain, process, store and consume sufficient amounts of healthy and nutritious preferred food – foods physically and spiritually craved and needed from the land, air and water, which provide for families and future generations through the practice of Inuit customs and spirituality, languages, knowledge, policies, management practices and self governance. It includes the responsibility and ability to pass on knowledge to younger generations, the taste of traditional foods rooted in place and season, knowledge of how to safely obtain and prepare traditional foods for medicinal use, clothing, housing, nutrients and, overall, how to be within one’s environment. It means understanding that food is a lifeline and a connection between the past and today’s self and cultural identity. Inuit food security is characterized by environmental health and is made up of six interconnecting dimensions: 1) Availability, 2) Inuit Culture, 3) Decision-Making Power and Management, 4) Health and Wellness, 5) Stability and 6) Accessibility. This definition holds the understanding that without food sovereignty, food security will not exist.”

Marine mammals hold strong cultural and social significance to Alaska Natives, Native Hawaiians, and Native Americans who have long histories of sharing coastal landscapes with marine mammals – the archaeological record shows these histories stretch back thousands of years. In addition, marine mammals hold a significant place in the Arctic Indigenous worldview and Alaska Native communities rely on them for food and cultural identity, including the creation and selling of handicrafts and clothing. The MMPA recognizes the importance of traditional hunting and cultural practices involving marine mammals by Alaska Natives. Alaska Native Organizations (ANOs) have partnered with federal agencies to ensure that hunting of marine mammals by their member communities is sustainable and contributes to knowledge of the species and their importance to Alaska Native communities, under a process known as “co-management.” Nine ANOs currently maintain marine mammal co-management agreements with Federal agencies. Those agreements are guided by the recognition that the best way to conserve marine mammal populations in Alaska is to provide full and equal participation by Alaska Natives in decisions affecting the subsistence management of marine mammals.

Conservation of marine mammals in Alaska is important not only to the continuation of traditional lifeways and cultural identities to Alaska Native peoples, but as an essential component of Alaska Native food sovereignty and food security. While definitions of food sovereignty and food security are culturally-specific, they can be generally described as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and the right to define their own food and agriculture systems” and “when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life,” respectively.

The value that marine mammals represent to Alaska Native and other Indigenous societies cannot be concisely calculated or described. Assigning a dollar value to a walrus, for example, neither accounts for, nor accurately describes, the interconnectedness of different dimensions of lifeways, cultural identity, and environmental, nutritional, and cultural health embodied by the walrus.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

General Information

Whale Watching Handbook. International Whaling Commission.

Nature’s Solution to Climate Change. R. Chami et al. 2019. Finance and Development. 

Whale watching worldwide: tourism numbers, expenditures, and expanding economic benefits. International Fund for Animal Welfare.

Non-Market Economic Value of Recreation Use on the Outer Coast of Washington State and Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, NOAA.

Alaskan Inuit Food Sovereignty Initiative. Inuit Circumpolar Council-Alaska

Inuit Food Security Project. Inuit Circumpolar Council-Alaska

Selected Peer-Review Publications

Marine Mammals as Sentinel Species for Oceans and Human Health. G.D. Bossart. 2011. Veterinary Pathology 48(3) 676–690.

The ecosystem service of sense of place: benefits for human well-being and biodiversity conservation. A. Hausmann et al. 2016. Environmental Conservation 43(2):117–127.

Recovery of a top predator [sea otters] mediates negative eutrophic effects on seagrass. B. Hughes et al. 2013. PNAS 110 (38) 15313–15318.

Paralytic shellfish toxins in Alaskan Arctic food webs during the anomalously warm ocean conditions of 2019 and estimated toxin doses to Pacific walruses and bowhead whales. K. Lefebvre et al. 2022. Harmful Algae 114:102205.

Whales in the carbon cycle: can recovery remove carbon dioxide? H.C. Pearson et al. 2022. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 3074.

Sentinel California sea lions provide insight into legacy organochlorine exposure trends and their association with cancer and infectious disease. N. Randhawa et al. 2015. One Health 1:37–43.

Reducing marine mammal bycatch in global fisheries: An economics approach. R. Lent and D. Squires. 2017. Deep Sea Research Part II 140:268–277.

Conservation benefits of an interdisciplinary approach to marine mammal science. R. Lent. 2015. Frontiers in Marine Science 2:67.

Educational and conservation value of whale watching. K. A. Stamation et al. 2007. Tourism in Marine Environments 4(1):41–55.

Public willingness to pay for recovering and downlisting threatened and endangered marine species. K. Wallmo and D. K. Lew. 2011. Conservation Biology 26(5):830–839.

The Whale Pump: Marine Mammals Enhance Primary Productivity in a Coastal Basin. Joe Roman and James J. McCarthy. 2010. PLoS ONE 5(10): e13255.

Co-production of knowledge reveals loss of Indigenous hunting opportunities in the face of accelerating Arctic climate change. D.D.W. Hauser et al. 2021. Environmental Research Letters 16:095003.

Marine Mammal Stranding Response, Health Surveillance, and Conservation Webinar

Hosted by the Marine Mammal Commission

View the webinar recording on zoomgov.com! Passcode: C?nzx=i1

2:00-4:30PM EST on February 8, 2023

Objective: Provide an overview of the National Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program and the legislation that gives authority to NOAA to implement the stranding response program, introduce new legislation and the concept of a Marine Mammal Health Monitoring and Analysis Platform (Health MAP), and review how data from stranding networks enable effective marine mammal health surveillance and inform management and conservation efforts.

View the agenda, click here.

Presentations:

Entangled Hawaiian monk seal. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries

Overview and purpose of the National Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program – Sarah Wilkin, National Stranding and Emergency Response Coordinator at the Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)

Regional efforts to use stranding network data for conservation of marine mammalsAinsley Smith, Marine Mammal Stranding Coordinator at the Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office, NMFS

Case studies on how stranded marine mammals can inform conservation efforts – Laura Engleby, Branch Chief at the Southeast Regional Office, NMFS

An academic perspective: what can we learn from multi-year, cross-institutional collaborations that focus on marine mammal health surveillance? – Dr. Wendy Puryear, Senior Research Associate, Department of Infectious Disease and Global Health, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University

Overview of recent legislation related to stranding networks – Brady O’Donnell, Communications and Legislative Affairs Officer, Marine Mammal Commission

Health MAP: A vision for marine mammal stranding response, health surveillance, science, and management – Dr. Frances Gulland, Chair, Marine Mammal Commission

Panel Discussion – The panel will address questions on stranding network data sharing and  collaboration for the purpose of more effective marine mammal health surveillance and conservation.

For more information, contact Brady O’Donnell (bodonnell@mmc.gov). 

LEARN MORE

Commission Letters

June 1, 2021 – Letter to National Marine Fisheries Service’s on future directions of the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program

Publications

Preprint – Please note an updated peer reviewed version of this paper will be in EID April addition, and may be available sooner as an early release: Puryear, W., Sawatzki, K., Hill, N., Foss A,. Stone J.J., Doughty, L., Walk, D., Gilbert K., Murray M., Cox E., Patel P., Mertz Z., Ellis S., Taylor J., Fauquier D., Smith A., DiGiovanni R., van de Guchte A., Gonzalez-Reiche A., Khalil Z., van Bakel H., Torchetti, M., Lenoch J., Lantz K., Runstadler J. 2023. Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza A (H5N1) Virus Outbreak in New England Seals, USA. Emerging Infectious Diseases 2023 Apr.

Puryear, W., Sawatzki, K., Bogomolni, A., Hill, N., Foss, A., Stokholm, I., Olsen, M., Waltzek, T., Goldstein, T., Subramaniam, K., Rodrigues, T., Belaganahalli, M., Doughty L., Becker, L., Stockes, A., Niemeyer, M., Tuttle, A., Romano, T., Linhares, M., Fauquier, D., Runstadler, J. 2021. Longitudinal analysis of pinnipeds in the Northwest Atlantic provides insights on endemic circulation of Phocine distemper virus. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 288(1962):20211841.

Puryear, W., Keogh, M., Hill, N., Moxley, J., Josephson, E., Ryan-Davis, K., Bandoro, C., Lidgard, D., Bogomolni, A., Levin, M., Lang, S., Hammill, M., Bowen, D., Johnston, D., Romano, T., Waring, G., Runstadler, J.A. 2016. Prevalence of influenza A virus in live-captured North Atlantic gray seals: a possible wild reservoir. Emerging Microbes and Infections 5(8):e81.

Web Resources

Marine Mammal Health Monitoring and Analysis Platform (MMC)

Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program (NOAA)

Title IV MMPA – Establishment of the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program

Seal Ecology and Assessment Research in the Northwest Atlantic (NOAA)

Viral Ecology of Northwest Atlantic Marine Mammals (Tufts)

Equal Employment Opportunity and Other Related Policies

Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Policies

The Marine Mammal Commission has adopted and fully supports a policy against discrimination of any employee or applicant for employment because of age, race, religion, color, disability, sex (including pregnancy, sexual orientation, and gender identity), genetic information, and national origin. This policy includes, but is not limited to, the following: recruitment and employment, promotion, demotion, transfer, compensation, selection for training including apprenticeship, layoff, and termination. The Commission ensures equal employment opportunities. The Commission’s EEO and Affirmative Action Policy is available here.

Other policies under EEO can be found below.

No Fear Act Policy

The Notification and Federal Employee Antidiscrimination and Retaliation Act of 2002 (No FEAR Act), which became effective in 2003, requires federal agencies to take certain actions. These actions are designed to reinvigorate agencies’ longstanding obligation to provide a work environment free of discrimination and retaliation. Under the Act, federal agencies must:

  • Post on their website a notice apprising federal employees, applicants, and former employees of their rights and the remedies available under the Act. This notice is available here.
  • Submit annual reports setting forth information about their efforts to improve compliance with the employment discrimination and whistleblower protection laws and detailing the status of complaints brought against the agency under these laws.
  • Every fiscal quarter, post on their public websites summary statistical data pertaining to EEO complaints filed with the agency over the past five fiscal years.

Click here for the Commission’s latest summary of statistical data under the No Fear Act.

Learn More

EEO Policies

EEO and Affirmative Action Policy

Affirmative Action Plan

Personal Assistance Procedures

General Services Administration (GSA) Reasonable Accommodation Procedure

Contact Information for GSA Commissions and Boards

Marine Mammal Commission Equity Action Plan – E.O. 13985

 

No Fear Act Resources

Questions and answers on the No FEAR Act from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)

Office of Personal Management (OPM) Web page – No FEAR Act

Federal Agency Approaches to Reducing Vessel Strike of Cetaceans

Meeting of the Marine Mammal Commission and Committee of Scientific Advisors on Marine Mammals

Federal Agency Approaches to Reducing Vessel Strike of Cetaceans

April 12, 2022

The webinar was recorded and is available for viewing here.

Meeting Format:

This meeting is conducted in accordance with the requirements of the Government in the Sunshine Act and the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

Objective: The Commission and Committee of Scientific Advisors will meet to consider actions for reducing vessel strike of large cetaceans. Specifically, meeting  participants will review Federal vessel-routing and speed-reduction programs, their elements and effectiveness, identify locations where additional measures are or may be needed, and consider recommendations for next steps. To view the agenda, click here.

Presenter Biographies

Presentations:

Welcome and Commission Business – Daryl Boness, Commission Chairman, Marine Mammal Commission

North Atlantic right whale in the vicinity of a large vessel (New England Aquarium)

North Atlantic right whale in the vicinity of a large vessel (New England Aquarium)

Introduction and Overview of Vessel Strikes to Large Cetaceans – Frances Gulland, Commissioner, Marine Mammal Commission & UC Davis

Large Whale Vessel Strike Mitigation Efforts: Progress and Lessons Learned – Caroline Good, National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)

Vessel/Whale Strike Reduction: United States Coast Guard – Ready, Relevant, ResponsiveKatie Moore, United States Coast Guard (USCG)

Whale Strike Research and Mitigation Efforts: Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary Dave Wiley, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary

Voluntary Vessel Speed Reduction (VSR) in California National Marine SanctuariesMichael Carver, Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries & Sean Hastings, Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary

Whale Strike Avoidance in Southeastern Alaska: Charting a Course for the FutureChris Gabriele, Glacier Bay National Park

Panel Discussion – question and answer, major findings, and next steps

For more information, contact Brady O’Donnell (bodonnell@mmc.gov) or Hannah Wellman (hwellman@mmc.gov).

LEARN MORE

Commission Letters

March 26, 2021 – Letter to National Marine Fisheries Service’s North Atlantic right whale vessel speed rule assessment.

Publications

2021-22 Greater Farallones & Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries Advisory Councils Joint Ship Strike Working Group: Final Report.

Gende S.M., Vose L., Baken J., Gabriele C.M., Preston R., and Hendrix A.N. 2019. Active Whale Avoidance by Large Ships: Components and Constraints of a Complementary Approach to Reducing Ship Strike Risk. Frontiers in Marine Science 6:592.

Morten J., Freedman R., Adams J.D., Wilson J., Rubinstein A., Hastings S. 2022. Evaluating Adherence With Voluntary Slow Speed Initiatives to Protect Endangered Whales. Frontiers in Marine Science 9:833206.

Owen K., Saeki K., Warren J.D., et al. 2021. Natural dimethyl sulfide gradients would lead marine predators to higher prey biomass. Communications Biology 4. https://doi.org/10.1038/s42003-021-01668-3

Parks S.E., Warren J.D., Stamieszkin K., Mayo C.A., and Wiley, D. 2011. Dangerous dining: surface foraging of North Atlantic right whales increases risk of vessel collisions. Biology Letters 8:57-60.

Silva T.L., Wiley D.N., and Fay G. 2021. A hierarchical modelling approach to estimating humpback whale abundance from sand lance abundance. Ecological Modelling 456.

Silva T.L., Wiley D.N., Thompson M.A., et al. 2021. High collocation of sand lance and protected top predators: Implications for conservation and management. Conservation Science and Practice 3:e274.

Wiley D.N., Mayo C.A., Maloney E.M., and Moore, M.J. 2016. Vessel strike mitigation lessons from direct observations involving two collisions between noncommercial vessels and North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis). Marine Mammal Science 32: 1501-1509.

Wiley D.N., Thompson M., Pace R.M., and Levenson J. 2011. Modeling speed restrictions to mitigate lethal collisions between ships and whales in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, USA. Biological Conservation 144(9):2377-2381.

Web Resources

Using Whale Alert in Southeast Alaska: Creating Safe Waters for Both Mariners and Whales

“5 things you can do to reduce the risk of a whale strike.” (NOAA)

All Boaters Should Reduce Their Speed to Protect North Atlantic Right Whales (NOAA)

Public Comments Received on the North Atlantic Right Whale Speed Rule (NOAA)

North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis) Vessel Speed Rule Assessment (NOAA)

Reducing Vessel Strikes to North Atlantic Right Whales (NOAA)

Go Slow — Whales Below (NOAA)

Protecting Blue Whales and Blue Skies website

Visualizations of tagged North Atlantic right whales and vessel traffic off Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina coasts (tag and vessel traffic data from January 2015) TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

Visualizations of tagged North Atlantic right whales and vessel traffic off Mid-Atlantic coast (tag and vessel traffic data from March 2021) TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

Effects of Climate Change on Marine Mammals

Polar bears, walruses, and other Arctic species are facing similar challenges as summer sea ice continues to retreat image

Polar bears, walruses, and other Arctic species are facing similar challenges as summer sea ice continues to retreat (National Park Service)

Commission scientists have published a review of the evidence for effects of climate change on marine mammals that occur in U.S. waters.

The fundamental driver of climate change in the global oceans is increasing atmospheric carbon, which results in increased air and ocean temperatures, ocean acidification, loss of sea ice, and increased fresh-water discharge from melting ice and river outflows (IPCC). These changes foster both abiotic (sea-level rise, altered storm activity) and biotic (food web) ecosystem responses. Marine mammal responses to food web alterations (e.g., shifts in range, distribution, phenology, migration routes, diet) have physiological consequences (e.g., changes in body condition, health), as well as influencing individuals’ exposure to predation, pathogens, toxins, and risks associated with human activities, and this ultimately can affect reproductive success and survival. It is important to recognize that while climate change-related ecosystem alterations may have negative effects on some species, they can benefit others.

Schematic representation of climate change impacts on marine mammal populations (Gulland et al., 2022).

Climate change impacts on marine mammal are best known in the Arctic, but have also been documented throughout US waters, including temperate and sub-tropical regions.  While many of the observed effects had been predicted, some unforeseen effects have also been documented, such as the dramatic loss of pupping/nursing habitat for endangered Hawaiian monk seals due to sea level rise and severe storms. Other examples of marine mammal species in U.S. waters for which effects of climate change have been documented include humpback whales, North Atlantic right whales, and polar bears.

Examples of marine mammal species in U.S. waters for which effects of climate change have been documented. a. Humpback whale off Jeffreys Ledge, Gulf of Maine; b. male polar bear; c. North Atlantic right whale, Florida; d and e. Hawaiian monk seals, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Photo credits: a. Lauri Leach; b. Ian Stirling; c. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA research permit #15488; d. Shawn Farry Permit # 16632. (Gulland et al., 2022)

Many suspected effects of climate change remain unconfirmed; modifications to research and monitoring efforts could reveal the full scope and significance of current and future impacts on marine mammals. Commission scientists concluded that detecting and mitigating the threats to marine mammals from climate change will require some realignment of research and monitoring priorities, coupled with rapid and flexible management that includes both conventional and novel conservation interventions.

The paper can be read online for free in the Journal of Climate Change Ecology.

Learn More

A review of climate change effects on marine mammals in United States waters: Past predictions, observed impacts, current research and conservation imperatives (Gulland et al., 2022)

Climate Change – Stock Assessments Factsheet

Climate Change – Health and Strandings Factsheet

Climate Change – Distribution Shift Factsheet

Climate Change – Habitat Loss Factsheet

Climate Change – Alaska Native Subsistence Hunting Factsheet

Marine Mammal Education Resources

Female polar bear with cubs

Female polar bear with cubs. (Ian Stirling)

Why education?

Make them your own!

Feel free to download the powerpoints and lesson plans, below, and use them as the templates for your own lessons.

We recognize the value of educating individuals of all ages about the natural world and hope to make marine science, particularly marine mammal science, more accessible to people everywhere. At the Commission, we do this regularly by participating in school visits and public outreach events and by involving high school and undergraduate interns in marine mammal science and policy. We are hopeful that these educational resources will be used by teachers during everyday lessons as well as by scientists conducting outreach in the classroom. Each PowerPoint and lesson plan is designed for a different age group (K-12) to tailor the content to the students.

                 PowerPoint Presentations & Lesson Plans

Grade Level: K-2

Lesson Plan K-2

 

Grade Level: 3-5

Lesson Plan 3-5

 

Grade Level: 6-8

Lesson Plan 6-8

 

Grade Level: High School

Lesson Plan High School

 

More Educational Resources

NOAA Education Resources Page

NOAA Marine Mammal Education Resources Page

Woods Hole Sea Grant Educational Resources Page

NOAA National Marine Mammal Laboratory Education Resources Page

Smithsonian Ocean Portal

About the Commission

Our Mission

To provide independent, science-based oversight of domestic and international policies and actions of federal agencies addressing human impacts on marine mammals and their ecosystems.

Learn more about our duties under the MMPA.

Humpbacks breaching

Humpbacks breach more than any other whale. It is unknown exactly why they do this so frequently, but some scientists believe the impact of hitting the water could be a way to remove skin parasites. Others think it might be a form of social interaction or play. (NOAA)

The Marine Mammal Commission is an independent government agency charged by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) to further the conservation of marine mammals and their environment. We work to ensure that marine mammal populations are restored and maintained as functioning elements of healthy marine ecosystems in the world’s oceans. We provide science-based oversight of domestic and international policies and actions of federal agencies with mandates to address human impacts on marine mammals and their ecosystems. Our role is unique—we are the only U.S. government agency that provides comprehensive oversight of all science, policy, and management actions affecting marine mammals.

Who We Are

The Commission consists of three Commissioners appointed by the President, a nine-member Committee of Scientific Advisors, and 14 employees.

To learn more, meet our Commissioners, Scientific Advisors, and staff.

What We Do

We provide oversight of all science, policy, and management actions affecting marine mammals for just about one penny per American per year. Click here to view graphic above.

As an independent oversight agency, we are positioned to affect the evolution of policy decisions and help develop consensus among competing interests on controversial issues surrounding marine mammal science and conservation. We review proposed actions by federal agencies and others and provide recommendations to minimize the impacts of such actions on marine mammals and their environment.

Multiple human-related risk factors affect marine mammals, including direct and indirect effects of fisheries, underwater sound, contaminants and disease, harmful algal blooms and dead zones, vessel strikes, and impacts of climate change. We regularly consult with other federal agencies to understand, monitor, and mitigate these risk factors. Our work is centered on five strategic goals outlined in our FY2022–2026 Strategic Plan, and we pay special attention to species considered to be most vulnerable to human-related activities.

We carry out several activities to help ensure that the protection and conservation of marine mammals is reflected in a wide array of actions. Such activities include:

  • reviewing permit and incidental take authorization applications, proposed regulations, National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) documents (e.g., draft environmental assessments and impact statements), and Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing proposals;
  • developing and/or reviewing marine mammal policy and guidance documents;
  • producing periodic reports of particular importance to the conservation of marine mammals and maintenance of healthy ecosystems for Congress and relevant agencies;
  • reviewing results of research, providing funding for research, and identifying significant gaps in research and seeking ways to close such gaps;
  • participating in scientific and policy organizations and meetings, both domestic and international; and
  • conducting the Commission’s Annual Meeting and producing reports on an annual basis highlighting the Commission’s performance and accomplishments.

Although not a regulatory agency, the Commission’s comments must be taken into consideration by the relevant action agencies. Should an agency choose to not follow the Commission’s recommendations, it must provide a rationale for taking a different approach.

We provide comments and recommendations regarding marine mammal protection and conservation to federal agencies and others through regular contact and meetings, as well as through formal letters. In these letters, we identify actions that agencies could take to conserve and manage marine mammals.

We are also periodically called upon to brief Capitol Hill staff and, less frequently, to present testimony to Congress regarding marine mammal protection and conservation issues.

Cross-Agency Collaborations

The Commission helps develop and coordinate multi-agency research and management initiatives to facilitate marine mammal protection and conservation, working closely with those agencies most directly carrying out the mandate of the MMPA. Key partners include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and National Ocean Service (NOS), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) of the Department of Interior, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), and the National Science Foundation (NSF). We also work closely with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, and other branches of the military on their activities that may impact marine mammals and their habitats.

Florida manatee

Florida manatee. (NOAA)

Collaboration regularly involves support and coordination on basic research. Through our grants and research program, we seek to identify key research priorities and help coordinate this work to eliminate duplication and ensure effective use of scarce research funds. We also work to ensure that scientific results are rigorously reviewed and used in management to develop, improve, or evaluate mitigation measures to benefit marine mammals.

Learn More about the Marine Mammal Commission

About the Commission: One-Page Infographic

About the Commission: One-Page Handout

2022 Annual Report

FY 2022–2026 Strategic Plan

Contact Us

To learn more about the Commission and our work, sign up for our e-newsletter and follow us on Twitter.

Gulf of Mexico Marine Mammal Research and Monitoring Meeting – Summary and Presentations

April 7-8, 2015

New Orleans, Louisiana

Meeting summary report

Full meeting program and project descriptions

Welcome and Introductions

Overview of Marine Mammal Stocks and Human Activities

Current Research and Monitoring Programs

I. Abundance, Distribution, and Stock Structure

II. Health, Strandings, and Life History

III. Understanding Effects of Human Activities

Priority Information Needs and Knowledge Gaps – Recent Assessments

Evening Poster/Social Session

Data Sharing as a Mechanism for Collaboration and Capacity Building

Developing a Monitoring Framework for the Gulf

Funding Opportunities in the Gulf

Additional Resources and Information

Environmental Law Institute

NOAA Restoration Center 

RESTORE Act Ecosystem Restoration Council  

RESTORE Act Science Program

RESTORE Act Centers of Excellence

Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative (GOMRI)

Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund

Gulf Research Program

BOEM Environmental Studies Program

Sound and Marine Life Joint Industry Program