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Brief Summary of Dolphin Protection under the MMPA
Jamie M. Woolsey (2002)


[For facts about the dolphin, see the Biological Summary of the Dolphin ]

In 1972, the United States Congress enacted a law to protect dolphins and other marine mammals.  This act, called the Marine Mammal Protection Act ("MMPA"), was passed because citizens and environmental groups were concerned that certain marine mammals were in danger of extinction or depletion due to human activity.  [Congress sought to achieve a "balance" in enacting the MMPA.]   In particular, Congress was concerned with the high dolphin mortality rates caused by the tuna fishing industry.  

Almost all tuna sold in cans is caught in nets with a method called "purse seining."  Seining is a very technical procedure which involves circling schools of fish with large nets (up to a mile long and 600 feet deep) and "pursing" the bottom of the net with a huge drawstring to trap the fish.  For reasons that are still not understood, tuna and dolphins swim together in large numbers in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean ("ETP").  Dolphins die in the nets because they are unwilling or unable to jump over the closing net and escape.  Between 1959, when purse seine nets became widely used, and 1972, tuna  fishermen in the ETP killed millions of dolphins.  [Congress initially heard testimony that 200-400,000 dolphins were being killed per year due to purse seining.]

In passing the MMPA, Congress found that certain species of marine mammals, are, or may be, in danger of extinction and that such species should not be permitted to diminish to a point where it could damage the ecosystem of which they are a part.  The MMPA established a prohibition, with certain exceptions, on the "taking" (defined in the law to mean "to harass, hunt, capture, or kill, or attempt to harass, hunt or kill) of marine mammals in the United States, and on the importing of marine mammals and marine mammal products into the Untied States.  [The case of U.S. v. Hayashi further delineated the term.]

Congress has amended or changed the MMPA many times since 1972.  [Significant amendments occurred in 1981 , 1984 , and 1988 ].  The agency responsible for implementing the MMPA, the National Marine Fisheries Service ("NMFS"), has issued a number of regulations as well.  Finally, the courts have addressed many issues and controversies under the act.  [Cases have dealt with feeding wild dolphins and releasing captive dolphins among other things.]  These amendments, regulations, and court decisions have tried to strike a balance between protecting dolphins, and other marine mammals, and the security of jobs and livelihood of the commercial fishing industry.


Overview of Dolphin Protection under the MMPA
Jamie Woolsey (2002)

In 1972, the United States Congress enacted the Marine Mammal Protection Act ("MMPA"), finding that certain species and population stocks of marine mammals were in danger of becoming extinct or depleted as a result of human activities. The term "marine mammal" under the MMPA means any mammal morphologically (biologically structured or formed) adapted to the marine environment (including sea otters members of the Sirenia, (manatees) Pinnipeida, (seals and sea lions), and Cetacea, (whales and dolphins), or primarily inhabits the marine environment (such as the polar bear).  While dolphins are not the only marine mammal protected under the MMPA, Congress was especially concerned with the harmful impact upon dolphins a result of the tuna fishing industry.  [Congress heard testimony regarding the millions of dolphins incidentally killed during tuna fishing.]

A primary objective of the MMPA is to maintain the health and stability of the marine ecosystem by sustaining marine mammal populations.  In the MMPA, Congress declared a new policy that stated that marine mammals under the act should not be permitted to diminish beyond the point at which they cease to be a significant functioning element in the ecosystem. [The 1972 version stated this as a primary purpose.]   In other words, Congress recognized that marine mammals have an important role in the marine world, and if too many of them are killed, then the whole marine environment will become unbalanced and suffer.  To achieve this policy, Congress ordered measures be taken immediately to replenish any species or population stock which had already diminished.  In particular, Congress sought to protect essential habitats, including rookeries, mating grounds, and areas of similar significance for marine mammal from the adverse effect of human activities. 

The method chosen by Congress to achieve the policies of the MMPA is to prohibit the "taking" of marine mammals in the United States and by United States citizens on the high seas.  [Taking is perhaps the key term under the MMPA in terms of court decisions.]   It also includes a ban on the importation of marine mammals and marine mammal products into the country, with certain exceptions.  The term "take" is defined in the statue to mean "to harass, hunt capture, or kill, or attempt to harass, hunt, capture, or kill any marine mammal."  However, the definition of "taking" is more complex than a simple definition can explain.  For example, courts have construed taking by harassment to include popular "Swim-With Dolphins" activities and feeding dolphins in the wild.

The MMPA provides that the moratorium on taking of marine mammals can be waived for specific purposes if the taking will not disadvantage the affected species or stock. [With regard to commercial fisheries, there is the expressed goal of zero mortality.]   It allows permits to be issued to take or import any marine mammal species to conduct scientific research or to enhance the survival or recovery of a species or stock.  [Even photographs under this exception are subject to permits.]   Permits may also be issued to allow for the taking of a marine mammal from the wild for the purposes of public display. These permits are very specific and designate the number and species of animals that can be taken, as well as time, date, location, and method of takings.  [This is but one issue related to dolphins in captivity.]

Virtually all tuna sold in cans today is caught in nets with a method called "purse seining."  Modern seining is a highly technical procedure, developed in the late 1950s when fishermen discovered that yellowfin tuna in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean ("ETP") aggregated beneath schools of dolphins for unknown reasons. Since that discovery, the predominant tuna fishing method in the ETP has been to encircle schools of dolphins with a fishing net to capture the tuna concentrated below.  Millions of dolphins died in the early years of this fishery that resulted in large public outcry and finally the MMPA.  Amendments to the MMPA from 1984 to 1992 resulted in great reductions in the number of dolphins caught in the tuna purse seine fishery in the ETP.  However, foreign participation in the ETP continued to increase.  Mortality was managed under the voluntary International Dolphin Conservation Program ("IDCP") supported by the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission ("IATTC").  Since 1992, nations participating in the fishery have worked to negotiate more substantial international conservation measures for dolphins and tuna in the ETP.  For example, through the IDCP, observed dolphin deaths have been cut from 133,000 in 1986 to fewer than 2,000 annually since 1998.  [The international aspect to dolphin protection implicates GATT and a host of other agreements.]

The National Marine Fisheries Service ("NMFS") is the federal agency responsible for administering the MMPA, as well as the enforcement of other statutes that protect marine mammals.  The MMPA is the primary law that governs the conservation, and ultimately the survival, of dolphins as they continue to be in captivity for research and public display, as well as contacted in the wild by human activity.


Related articles

Detailed Discussion of Dolphin Drive Hunts, Lauren Tierney, Animal Legal & Historical Center (2010).

Biological Summary of the Dolphin, Lauren Tierney, Animal Legal & Historical Center (2010).

Caring for Dolphins, Otters, and Octopuses: Speciesism in the Regulation of Zoos and Aquariums, Marla K. Conley, 15 Animal L. 237 (2008).

The Japanese Dolphin Hunts: In Quest of International Legal Protection for Small Ceteceans, Rachelle Adam, 14 Animal Law 133 (2007).

Tuna Dolphin Wars:  Conservationists are Fighting to Save Beleaguered Dolphins from Deadly Tuna Nets  by Dick Russell, Defenders of Wildlife ( (2002).

Dolphin Protection and the Marine Mammal Protection Act Have Met Their Match: The General Agreements of Tariffs and Trade , Joseph J. Urgese, 31 Akron L. Rev. 457 (1998).

Did United States v. Hayashi Fail to Provide a Safe Harbor for Marine Mammals Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act?   by April Fisher and Amber A. Bell, 27 Golden Gate U.L. Rev. 67 (1997).


Related cases

Table of Cases Dealing with Dolphins


Related laws

Table of Laws Dealing with Dolphins

U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act (16 USC 1411 - 1418), Subchapter IV. International Dolphin Conservation Program.

Related Links

Web Center Links:

Orcas in Capitivity Topic Area

Whale Laws Topic Area

Links at the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS):

Information on dolphin species, permits, and stock assessments.

NMFS "Protect the Dolphin Campaign."


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