NOAA Law Enforcement At Work: Investigating Marine Mammal Crimes
NOAA Enforcement Officer Scott Adams rescues an injured harbor seal pup. The pup had a baited fish hook embedded in its lower lip, and had also ingested one.
NOAA Enforcement Officer Dennis Thaute, now retired, observes a necropsy on a harbor seal. Necropsies, or animal autopsies, can help NOAA uncover additional evidence, such as bullet fragments.
A NOAA special agent conducts an investigation under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. As human populations and climate change impacts increase, ensuring the recovery and long-term health of marine mammals is an important goal for the nation.
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October 3, 2012
It’s horrible to imagine, but it happens. Dolphins with bullets lodged in their lungs and screwdrivers stabbed in their skulls. California sea lions with crossbows piercing their necks. Monk seals in Hawaii, Steller sea lions in Alaska, gray seals off Cape Cod and even a pilot whale in New Jersey—all shot to death.
It’s the job of special agents and enforcement officers with NOAA Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement to investigate these awful crimes under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which celebrates its 40th anniversary this month.
Protecting Marine Mammals, Enforcing the Law
“Recovery of marine mammals, as well as threatened and endangered species, is a tremendous, long-term challenge, but it is a worthy pursuit that offers lasting benefits to the health of our environment and communities,” said Special Agent Todd Nickerson. “The Marine Mammal Protection Act is one of the primary laws we use to ensure those who commit crimes against these protected species are held accountable.”
The Act prohibits, with certain exceptions, the "take" of marine mammals and defines "take" as "harassment, hunting, capturing, killing or collecting," or the attempt to do so. Violations can result in a civil penalty up to $11,000 as well as criminal penalties up to $100,000 and imprisonment of up to a year or both.
“Solving these crimes is difficult for many reasons: it’s a big ocean, marine mammals are consumed or decompose quickly in the water, and witnesses don’t come forward or even exist,” said Assistant Special Agent in Charge Paul Raymond. “It is important that we try because marine mammals are at the top of the food chain and, if their numbers are diminished, it could harm the ecosystem.”
You Can Help
Investigating and proving violations of the Marine Mammal Protection Act is complex work, and community involvement is vital to the success of any enforcement effort. Call the NOAA Enforcement Hotline, 1-800-853-1964, 24 hours a day to report possible violations or provide information to help solve a case. In May 2009, photos from hikers, who were in the area during the time of a monk seal shooting, helped lead the investigators to the perpetrators. There are other success stories as well, like the commercial fisherman who was sentenced to prison for building pipe bombs and throwing them at dolphins.
Unfortunately, crimes often remain unsolved. The cases for seven gray seal shootings in Massachusetts and seven suspicious deaths of monk seals in Hawaii are still open.
Have You Ever Committed this Crime?
What some consider harmless behavior such as feeding, swimming with, or touching marine mammals is illegal behavior under the Act. These actions can disturb marine mammals and result in injury both to the animals and to the people watching them.
A notorious Florida dolphin nicknamed Beggar was the poster dolphin for how harmful this behavior can be. He was found dead September 21, 2012. From March to June 2011 alone, a researcher who spent more than 100 hours observing Beggar documented:
- 3,600 interactions between Beggar and humans, up to 70 per hour
- 169 attempts to feed him 520 different food items, everything from shrimp and squid to beer and hotdogs.
- 121 attempts to touch him, resulting in nine bites to humans who were petting him.
Although the cause of Beggar’s death could not be specified due to decomposition, there were numerous findings that humans played an overall role in Beggar’s ill health, including healed boat propeller wounds and multiple broken ribs and vertebrae.
“Human interaction is the foundation of the dolphin behavioral problem,” said Assistant Special Agent in Charge Mark Kinsey. “If the public didn’t feed the dolphins, the animals’ natural behavior would not change.”
Ship Strikes—Another Problem for Marine Mammals
Ship strikes also pose a threat to marine mammals, and agents and officers investigate these crimes as well. A high priority for the agency's Northeast and Southeast divisions is enforcing the Right Whale Ship Strike Reduction Rule, which limits vessels of 65 feet or greater to speeds of 10 knots or fewer in areas where the endangered North Atlantic right whale is known to calve, feed, and migrate.
Since 2009, NOAA’s Office of General Counsel has prosecuted 21 vessels for violating the rule, and there have been no reported right whale fatalities due to ship collisions in the seasonal management areas since the rule was implemented in 2008.
"No one likes to be the object of enforcement, but as Abraham Lincoln said, ‘A law without enforcement is just good advice,’” said Special Agent Stuart Cory.
“By enforcing MMPA, we protect those who don’t have a voice and help ensure that these species survive to be enjoyed by future generations.”
By the Numbers
In calendar year 2011 alone, NOAA Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement opened:
All three statutes protect marine mammals.