Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Marine Mammal Protection Act

Maybe you've seen the insurance company's commercial: The mother and calf humpback whale swim through the ocean while the announcer intones about how whale song albums released in the 1960s lead to the worldwide protection of whales (and therefore, by some leap of logic, you should buy their insurance). Indeed it was songs by Judy Collins, The Partridge Family, Country Joe McDonald and others that increased awareness of the plight of whales and other marine mammals, leading the US to adopt the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).

Called the first legislation to take an "ecosystem approach" to wildlife management, the act led to protection of not just endangered but all marine mammal species, and regulated taking, which is the harassing, hunting, capturing, killing, or collecting (or attempting to do any of these things) of marine mammals.

Rules for mariners. Actions by vessels near marine mammals are restricted by regulations adopted by federal agencies under authority of the MMPA. Specific regulations can vary from region to region, but many wildlife watching captains adhere to "Code of Conduct" which calls for staying at least 100 yards from animals, not staying with any individual animal for more than 30 minutes, not cutting off an animals from its group, and not trapping an animal between the vessel and the shore. In southeast Alaska, this code of conduct was adopted into law in 2001 and expanded, forbidding vessels from maneuvering if within 100 yards of a humpback whale, and forbidding "leap-frogging," maneuvering a vessel in front of a whale to try to get it to surface. In Glacier Bay National Park, there are even more stringent rules, including speed limits in "whale waters" whether whales are present or not. On the US east coast, the "no go zone" is expanded to 500 yards around right whales. Other MMPA regulations forbid feeding, touching, or swimming with marine mammals.

Criticisms: MMPA goes too far. Some fishing industry groups say MMPA regulations put animals before people. Gray seals were raiding the pens at some New England fish farms, but the MMPA forbid the fish farmers from doing anything to control the seals. Native American groups have expressed concerns that the law infringes on their traditional and treaty rights.

Criticisms: MMPA doesn't go far enough. The US Navy has been taken task twice, once for using sonar that adversely effected whales, and once for a program to train dolphins to guard a submarine base. Other critics say the act should be expanded to include mammals held in captivity, like at Seaworld.

For a summary of the MMPA, click here. For the complete text, click here.

The National Marine Fisheries Service publishes specific regulations for marine mammal watching here.

The private Pacific Whale Watch Association publishes it guidelines here; they are a little more straightforward than the government publication.

If you like songs with whales in them, try these YouTube videos:


  1. If mariners operating whale watching vessels stick to the Code of Conduct, that's great, but they can't forget that the law actually prohibits harassment, not just prescribes times and distance guidelines.
    So, how do we define harassment? If the mammal changes behavior because of your approach, length of stay, etc., you have violated the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
    Better than just thinking "I've got to stay 100 yards away", is to have a checklist in your mind when operating around marine mammals:
    1. Am I altering the mammal's behavior?
    2. Am I operating within the path, time and distance guidelines of the Code of Conduct?
    3. Again, am I altering the mammal's behavior?

    Keep numbers 1 and 3 in mind at all times within the context of the Code of Conduct and you should be in good shape from the law's and the whale's perspective. And, when I explain both to passengers onboard my vessel, I get complete buy-in from them on why we won't get any closer to the whales, even though another vessel might.

  2. Very good point , Jill. The Italian website cetaceanwatching.com gives some general guidelines for how to know you might be altering a whale's behavior:

    "It is very important to be able to recognise some general behaviours of Cetaceans that may be related to distress, fear, or disturbance. In such cases Cetaceans should be left on their own, and it is very important to immediately leave the area:

    •Blowing air underwater should be taken as a warning sign.

    •Lobtailing (tail slapping) and tail-sweeping.

    •Anomalous dive sequences and unusually prolonged dives with substantial horizontal movements. Remember that you should never chase Cetaceans. It is not the easiest sign to recognise, that is why it is always better to have an expert on board."

    Interesting that some of the same behaviors that attract us to whales in the first place may be signs of "distress, fear, or disturbance."

    As to Jill's second point, cetaceanwatching.com has this to say:

    "Kindly discourage other people from putting a lot of pressure on the Skipper in the aim of making her/him get closer and closer (and finally too close) to Cetaceans. It sadly happens more often than one can imagine. The best Whale Watch Operators are the ones who are more sensible, not the ones who get closer. Moreover, the most sensible operators have often the best encounters."

    I can think of several meanings of the word "sensible" here, including considering the long-term consequences of disregarding the Code of Conduct. As folks in the oil/gas and fishing sectors of the maritime industry already know, ignoring "sensible" precautions leads to pushing the envelope until, inevitably, there is some kind of big, public incident. Such incidents lead to public outcry and reactionary legislation that imposes new inconveniences and expenses on the offending industry. When you consider that the envelope pushing was probably economically motivated in the first place, it seems like a foolish choice from the beginning.