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News Update

50 Wins for Marine Mammals: Celebrating 50 Years of the Marine Mammal Protection Act

October 21, 2022
  • Species conservation

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, a law that protects all marine mammals, including whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, manatees, sea otters and polar bears, within U.S. waters. Since becoming law in 1972, the Marine Mammal Protection Act has played a critical role in the survival of marine mammals and the health of our ocean ecosystem—and will continue to do so for years to come.

Over the last 50 years, the Marine Mammal Protection Act has enabled countless conservation success stories. We couldn’t possibly name them all, so we’ve created a list of 50 of our favorite wins (in no particular order!) for marine mammals and our ocean, and you can feel proud of the role you’ve played in making these successes possible.

These conservation wins are just the beginning: As the world’s largest marine mammal hospital, the Center will continue building on the success of the Marine Mammal Protection Act by supporting thriving marine ecosystems, building ocean-literate communities, training leaders in the field and more.

The greatest threats to marine mammals are caused by people, but we can also be their greatest champions.

Sign up for email from The Marine Mammal Center to stay updated on how you can be an advocate and champion for marine mammals and ocean health.

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50 Wins for Marine Mammals and Our Ocean

The Marine Mammal Protection Act established the Marine Mammal Commission, an independent government agency working to further the conservation of marine mammals and their environment. Dr. Frances Gulland, who previously worked at the Center for 25 years, currently serves as Commission Chair. 

In 1992, amendments to the Marine Mammal Protection Act formalized the Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program to improve responses to strandings and unusual mortality events

Once thought to be extinct, the northern elephant seal population rebounded from the brink of extinction, and the population continues to grow every year. 

The Center retrofitted two patient pens to safely house and rehabilitate southern sea otters and customized a specialized housing area for our most vulnerable sea otter patients, allowing our experts to provide more hands-on care as we work to conserve this threatened species.

In 1990, shortly after a major earthquake, sea lions began hauling out on the docks at PIER 39 in San Francisco. PIER 39 turned to the Center for advice, and after research and discussion, the Center recommended that the sea lions be allowed to stay. These sea lions are one of the reasons PIER 39 became San Francisco’s most visited tourist destination—and is a success story of conservation and commerce thriving together.

northern elephant seals on a sandy beach

In 1975, The Marine Mammal Center was founded and our first patient, California sea lion Herman, was treated and released

The Guadalupe fur seal population is slowly recovering from the brink of extinction, and is now classified as a threatened species. The Center is one of few organizations permitted to rehabilitate this species.

Recently, the endangered Hawaiian monk seal population surpassed 1,500 individuals for the first time in more than 20 years. Of the 1,500 monk seals estimated to be in the wild, nearly 30 percent are alive today directly due to conservation efforts led by NOAA and partners like the Center. 

Harbor porpoises returned to the San Francisco Bay after an absence of approximately 65 years , which researchers suggest was due to poor water quality, and the arrival of other whale and dolphin species soon followed. 

As part of our work to save the Hawaiian monk seal, we opened Ke Kai Ola, a state-of-the-art hospital and visitor center on Hawai‘i Island in 2014. The Center is the only organization permitted to rehabilitate Hawaiian monk seals.

In 2009, The Marine Mammal Center opened its state-of-the-art hospital and visitor center in Sausalito.

In partnership with Ocean Conservancy and several other organizations, the Center co-founded the Trash Free Seas Alliance® as a coalition of nonprofits and industry leaders focused on innovative and pragmatic solutions to rid the ocean of plastic pollution and other forms of marine debris.

Humpback whales began entering San Francisco Bay in significant numbers and have returned each year to feed and rest.

Since 1975, the Center has rescued more than 24,000 marine mammals along 600 miles of California coastline and Hawai‘i Island, helping animals that otherwise may not have a chance at survival. 

In partnership with the Benioff Ocean Science Laboratory, we deployed Whale Safe, an AI-enabled system that will help prevent whale-ship collisions, to the San Francisco Bay Area Region.

humpback whale surfaces below the Golden Gate Bridge

The Global Ghost Gear Initiative, an alliance of countries, industries, nonprofits and academics focused on tackling the issue of lost and abandoned fishing gear around the world, was formed. This initiative, which the Center is a former member of, is the first global collective impact alliance dedicated to tackling the problem of ghost fishing gear at a global scale.

The Center is a leading first responder to cetaceans in distress. With the expansion of our large whale entanglement response efforts, we’re now creating the capacity and infrastructure to collaboratively advance whale entanglement response on the West Coast of the United States.

Sea otters were hunted to the brink of extinction, but the population has grown and is now listed as a threatened species. The Center is one of few organizations permitted to rehabilitate this species.

The National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation was created as a nationwide network of zoos, aquariums and science centers that work together to identify and teach best practices for climate communication. The Center serves as chair of the National Training Committee.

The California Dungeness Crab Fishing Gear Whale Entanglement Working Group was convened to address an increase in large whale entanglements in Dungeness crab fishing gear. The Center is a member of this working group, which also includes commercial and recreational fishermen, environmental organizations, and state and federal agencies.

For the first time, researchers have been able to confirm that two of our former Hawaiian monk seal patients are new moms – a powerful example of the impact of conservation efforts for this endangered species.

The Center’s Climate Literacy Collaborative was created to provide resources, such as workshops and a climate solution toolkit, for organizations to build capacity within their teams to better educate their audiences on the impacts of climate change. 

In 2019, the Center added a Cetacean Field Research program, a group of top researchers who focus on extending protections for whales, dolphins and porpoises to address negative human interactions like ship strikes, through scientific field research and our community science portal where you can submit cetacean sightings.

Seafood Watch® was developed as a free tool that helps consumers make informed decisions by exploring sustainable seafood choices and fish to avoid. The Center is a conservation outreach partner for this program led by Monterey Bay Aquarium.

In 2005, the Center opened its Moss Landing and Morro Bay locations to patients. These triage facilities provide space for patients to be kept overnight to allow their condition to stabilize before transport to our Sausalito hospital. 

harbor seal with a fish in its mouth

Experts at the Center developed an acoustic dart for remote sedation that allows for successful rescue of California sea lions in high-risk situations. This also led to the first successful darting of a phocid, or seal, for disentanglement.

Researchers began attaching satellite tags to marine mammals from threatened and endangered populations, including Guadalupe furs seals and Hawaiian monk seals, in order to track their movements in the wild, which allow our experts to learn more about how to better protect these species.

After identifying ship strikes with marine mammals near San Francisco Bay, the Center contributed data that led to changes in the mile-wide shipping lanes into San Francisco Bay to reduce traffic. The Center’s researchers continue to study whales in the area along with ship speeds so that informed decisions can be made to further protect whales in the Bay.

The Marine Mammal Center expanded its Hawaiian monk seal outreach and education programs to Maui

In 1986, the International Coastal Cleanup® began when communities rallied together with the common goal of collecting and documenting the trash littering their coastlines.

A specific cancer was first diagnosed in California sea lions at the Center in 1979. While there is more to be learned about the complex factors that play into the development of this disease, what we learn contributes to research that could lead to cures for humans.

The Center serves as a critical training ground for students and professionals from around the world in the field of marine mammal health, medicine and conservation. 

Marine mammal response groups from places like Russia and Mexico receive training and resources from our experts, resulting in more marine mammals getting life-saving care across the globe.

Researchers at the Center were the first to empirically examine how enrichment can be utilized in rehabilitation settings with wild marine mammals under temporary human care. The research suggests that enrichment can be used to promote the likelihood that rehabilitated animals will succeed when released to the wild.  

In 1998, the Center diagnosed the first case of domoic acid toxicosis in marine mammals, a major cause of mass strandings. Since then, our experts have been investigating new therapies to better treat affected patients.

harbor seal floating inside a life preserver enrichment device

The Center’s researchers are compiling the first-ever humpback whale, gray whale, harbor porpoise and bottlenose dolphin photo-identification catalogs for the San Francisco Bay in order to identify known individuals and track their movements.

In 2010, Center scientists brought together an array of international researchers to form the Sea Lion Cancer Consortium to enhance, promote and coordinate research to understand urogenital cancer in California sea lions, and this work continues today. 

The Center performs a necropsy on every patient that dies at our hospital, as well as whales in the field, because an extraordinary amount of information can be learned and collected, which is then shared with researchers around the world. 

In 1982, formalized education programs began at the Center. Today, programs like Ocean Ambassadors and Nā Kōkua o ke Kai inspire thousands of students each year to become ocean stewards.

The Center performed the first CT scan, with partners like NOAA, on a wild Hawaiian monk seal. The CT scan allowed experts to resolve the seal’s complex diagnosis and begin a treatment plan that led to a successful release back to the wild.

student looking into a microscope

The Center eliminated single-use plastic from its retail shipping packaging by using compostable paper-based tape and compostable/recyclable shipping labels; bubble-wrap used for fragile items is sourced secondhand.

California sea lion Sgt. Nevis was treated in 2010 for two large gaping holes just above his nose as a result of having been shot. He underwent what was the first-known reconstructive surgery on a sea lion gunshot wound victim.

As part of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, the Center acts as the primary response facility for oiled pinnipeds and can house up to 10 sea otters during a large spill.

In 1994, the Marine Mammal Protection Act was amended to require NOAA to use science-based research to assess marine mammal populations. These reports help estimate deaths due to human activity, recover depleted populations and increase our understanding of marine mammal biology and ecology.

Experts at the Center developed and were the first to administer a specialized eye gel to help treat corneal ulcers in sea lions.

southern sea otter Spinny eating crab
USFWS permit MA101713-1

The Center’s Sausalito hospital added solar panels over the patient pens and medical buildings, which generate 25 to 35 percent of our energy consumption.

The Center’s Sausalito hospital recycles 80 percent of the water in the patient pens and treats it with ozone gas in order to ensure that our patients have a clean environment for healing without wasting precious water resources.

In 1979, the Center published its first scientific paper. Since then, our research scientists have been primary or contributing authors on hundreds of peer-reviewed research papers and textbook chapters with the goal of understanding the lives and deaths of marine mammals to improve conservation outcomes.

Leptospirosis was first detected in California sea lions in 1970. The Center has been on the forefront of research on this disease in marine mammals and has published a number of scientific papers on it dating back to 1985 in order to better understand the dynamics of this pathogen in the California sea lion population.

Hawaiian monk seal Kilo was the first patient rescued from the Main Hawaiian Islands as much of the population resides in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Kilo was released after seven months of care.

Yes, I want to save a life!

Yes, I want to save a life!

You’ll be giving sick and injured animals the best possible care at the Center’s state-of-the-art hospital. With your gift today, you are giving a patient a second chance at life in the wild.

  • $35 You'll buy food for a hungry animal
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species conservation
Northern Elephant Seal
Guadalupe Fur Seal
Southern Sea Otter
Hawaiian Monk Seal
Humpback Whale
Harbor Porpoise