How are we protecting endangered cetaceans around the world?

The idea of conservation has grown in popularity since “save the whales” kicked off in the 1960s and 70s. Over the past 50 years, interest in environmentalist and conservation spaces has exploded along with the youth interest in climate change activism. This post will talk about the history of whale conservation and break down three policies used to protect endangered cetaceans domestically and abroad.

Credit: Pixabay

A brief history of conservation

Let’s briefly discuss the movement that brought forth the conservation acts we know today.

Despite Richard Nixon’s conservative views, the United States became increasingly aware of environmental issues during the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, which exposed the environmental impacts humans had on our planet. In 1969, the United States experienced its largest-ever oil spill at the time due to a leak at an offshore rig in Santa Barbara. More people were becoming aware of how delicate the balance of life is.

A recap of the measures taken to protect endangered cetaceans – ©Brianna Maloney

We have only begun to realize how biodiversity can impact multiple areas of life, from economic growth to habitat stability. If humanity continues to put more resources into destroying our planet rather than protecting it, ecosystems’ abilities to provide will break down. If we continue on our current path, it could cost the world economy $10 trillion by 2050, with poorer countries bearing the brunt.

Now that we know where we are, let’s see what we have to work with.

Endangered Species Act

After creating the Environmental Protection Agency, President Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The act aims to provide a framework to conserve and protect endangered and threatened species and their habitats. It provides assistance and incentives to develop and maintain conservation programs across the United States. It also serves as a method to meet the United States’ responsibilities to international treaties, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). The first list of endangered species, released in March of 1967, included 14 mammals, 36 birds, six reptiles, six amphibians, and 22 fish. There are now 1,473 species on the list.

There are currently 19 cetacean species on the ESA. Listed species include the Sei whale, Dugong, North Atlantic Right whale, Humpback whale, and Sperm whale.

Marine Mammal Protection Act

President Nixon also signed the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). As the name implies, it only involves marine mammals. Whales, seals, sea otters, manatees, and polar bears are all considered marine mammals.

The MMPA prohibits the “taking”, import, export, and sale of any marine mammal or marine mammal product. In this case, “taking” is defined as the attempt or “act of hunting, killing, capture, and/or harassment of any marine mammal” and harassment is defined as any act of pursuit or annoyance that could injure or disrupt marine mammals’ behavioral patterns.

Why focus specifically on marine mammals? People have historically hunted marine mammals for their oil, meat, or skin. This significantly threatened many species and ecosystems that relied on them. International whaling has changed dramatically over the past few decades due to the International Whaling Commission banning commercial whaling in 1986. In specific cases, other countries have their own protection acts. For example, the Cuban Fishery Law Decree No. 164 gives penalties against those that manipulate, harm, or injure manatees. New Zealand also has its own Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species

CITES is different than the previous two acts; it is an international treaty that is updated every three years during Conventions.

183 Parties signed the original document on 3 March 1973 in Geneva, Switzerland. The goal is to ensure that any international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their species survival. It provides varying degrees of protection to more than 35,000 species of animals and plants. CITES protects all cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) and sirenians (manatees and dugongs).

CITES is designed to focus on trade at the species level, and specifically does not address habitat loss or conservation.

Should we still be concerned?

Understandably, it can be difficult and disheartening to keep track of multiple internationally listed species that are in trouble.

There are reasons to be excited, though. Success stories like the recovery of the blue whale and some seal populations show what current protections can and have done to help species bounce back.

However, despite every whale species being protected under at least two of the discussed acts, some populations are still under threat. According to the IUCN, more than half of the 90 living species of cetaceans have a concerning conservation status.

This year, over 350 conservationists and scientists from 40 countries signed an open letter calling for global action to protect cetaceans from extinction. This comes in light of a recent UN report that found only six of the 20 goals set by the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2010 were partially achieved. The rest were not met at all. There is obviously more work that needs to be done on this front.

Many risks still threaten cetaceans, as we’ve previously discussed with the Vaquita. Aside from accidental take, risks have shifted from whaling to loss of prey and habitat, ship-strikes, and pollution. Policies can’t fix everything. Many of these issues need to be enforced at a local level. If you want to help, you can support local environmentalist groups and stay engaged with the issues! We all need to be mindful of our actions and try to make a difference. The protection of endangered cetaceans is a global problem, and it will take everyone to solve it, but we can do it together!


Brianna has a background in marine biology and currently works as a live-aboard deckhand/educator at the Los Angeles Maritime Institute (LAMI). Her research interests include ocean conservation, specifically in the high seas and polar regions, and identifying marine mammal vocalizations in the global soundscape. She is passionate about music and can’t write without coffee.

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