Marine mammals protected by federal law

Violations are punishable by fines of up to $28,520 and/or imprisonment

Kate Savage, left, Noah Meisenheimer, and Lt. Matthew Keiper of the U.S. Coast Guard collect samples from a dead Steller sea lion near Cordova, in June 2015. Photo courtesy of NOAA Fisheries

Federal fisheries officials have issued a reminder that the Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits killing marine mammals, except for exemptions for subsistence harvests by Alaska Natives.

“Marine mammals are an integral part of a healthy ecosystem,” said NOAA Fisheries Alaska Regional Administrator Jim Balsiger. “Unless it is being harvested for subsistence purposes, or is otherwise authorized, intentionally killing a marine mammal is illegal.

The Marine Mammal Protection Act also protects marine mammals from harassment, which is defined as “any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance which has the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild; or has the potential to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering.”

Penalties for violation of the MMPA include up to a fine of $28,520 and/or one-year imprisonment.

An exemption to the MMPA is for subsistence by Alaska Natives or for the purpose of creating or selling authentic Native articles of handicraft or clothing and must not be accomplished in a wasteful manner.

Seals and sea lions sometimes struggle to survive, especially in low fish years. NOAA Fisheries Stranding Program responded to multiple dead, emaciated Steller sea lions in 2017 and 2018, indicating that pinnipeds may be challenged to find enough food in some years and in some areas.


While there may be instances where pinnipeds damage fishing gear and catch when a fisherman is hauling a full net of fish, harvesters can often avoid pinnipeds without harming them, NOAA officials note.

Fishermen may deter a marine mammal from damaging gear or catch as long as such measures do not result in serious injury or death of the marine mammal. However, this exception does not apply to Endangered Species Act-listed marine mammals, such as the western distinct population segment of Steller sea lion, which primarily are found west of Cape Suckling.

NOAA Fisheries is currently working on publishing guidelines for safely deterring marine mammals. Once finalized, fishermen who take actions to deter marine mammals consistent with such guidelines or specific measures will not be in violation of the law.

To report a marine mammal violation, call 1-800-853-1964. NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement provides live operator coverage 24 hours a day, seven days a week. To report a dead, injured or otherwise stranded marine mammal in Alaska, call 1-877-925-7773, which also has 24/7 operator assistance.