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Public Display of Marine Mammals

The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) allows for the removal from the wild or importation of marine mammals for public display. NOAA Fisheries has jurisdiction over cetaceans (dolphins, porpoises, and whales) and pinnipeds (seals and sea lions, excluding walrus). The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has jurisdiction over all other marine mammal species (including walrus).

What is NOAA Fisheries' role in public display?

Is a permit required to have marine mammals on public display?

No. Permits are not required to maintain marine mammals in public display facilities, such as aquariums. 

However, species that are listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) require a scientific research or enhancement permit to be held at public display facilities.

What does a facility need to do to have marine mammals on public display?

Meet the following criteria, as outlined by the MMPA:

  1. Offer an education or conservation program;
  2. Be open to the public on a regularly scheduled basis; and
  3. Be licensed or registered by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA/APHIS) per the Animal Welfare Act (AWA).

What is required to export marine mammals for public display in other countries?

For marine mammals that are not ESA-listed or designated as depleted under the MMPA to be exported to foreign countries for public display, the receiving person or facility must meet standards that are comparable to those required of a U.S. facility (see above).

In addition, the appropriate agency of the foreign government (e.g., the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES)  management authority of the government) must certify that the:

  1. Information submitted is accurate;
  2. Government will enforce its laws and regulations pertaining to the public display and captive care of marine mammals; and
  3. Animals will continue to be held for public display purposes.

Marine mammals that are listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA, or are designated as depleted under the MMPA, may not be exported to foreign countries for public display.

How can I request information from the marine mammal inventory?

Anyone may request information from the National Marine Mammal Inventory database under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), through the FOIA online system. This system allows you to track the progress of your request and retrieve the data electronically. You will need to submit your request under the Department of Commerce, parent Department of NOAA Fisheries.

Please consider the following questions when submitting your request:

Do you need information on - 

Marine mammal holders may request holder/facility-specific information, including animal-specific data sheets by contacting NOAA Fisheries, Office of Protected Resources. At this time, inventory reports are not available online and must be requested. To request your inventory reports:

More information

Updated: December 17, 2013