Laws Protecting the Oceans - Oceana USA

Laws Protecting the Oceans

Ocean law and policy are vital to ocean conservation. Legislation provides guidelines for federal agencies to protect the marine environment. Though not all inclusive, the following list provides some of the U.S. laws that currently govern the oceans.


Coral Reef Conservation Act (CRCA)

The Coral Reef Conservation Act (CRCA) was established in 2000 for the purposes of preserving coral reef ecosystems, promoting wise management and gaining better information on the current condition of coral reefs. To fulfill these purposes, the act established four major programs: National Coral Reef Action Strategy, Coral Reef Conservation Program, Coral Reef Conservation Fund and the National Program.

The National Coral Reef Action Strategy was developed to establish goals for research, monitoring and conservation, along with addressing regional and international issues.

The Coral Reef Conservation Program and Coral Reef Conservation Fund both provide financial assistance for coral reef projects. The Conservation Program authorizes funding to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Secretary of Commerce and the Conservation Fund authorizes NOAA to provide funding to non-profit organizations for projects having to do with coral reefs.

The National Program assesses the conservation of coral reefs in various ways, such as monitoring and restoration. In addition, it enhances public awareness of coral reefs through education programs. The National Program also facilitates cooperative work between federal, state and regional efforts that are working to improve coral reef ecosystems.

Click here to read the bill in its entirety.

Learn more about issues facing coral reefs on Oceana’s climate change climate change and bottom trawling pages.

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The Endangered Species Act (ESA)

The Endangered Species Act was enacted in 1973 to protect animals from extinction. There are three major components of the ESA: listing species as either threatened or endangered, designating habitat that is critical to the species survival and restoring populations of species so they can be removed from the list.

Any person or group can submit a petition to list a species under the ESA. Marine species listed under the ESA fall under the jurisdiction of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Once a petition is submitted, the agency begins a review process of the species within 90 days.

Within one year, and after considering public comments, the agency must publish their findings and say whether the species may be threatened or endangered. Once a species is listed as either threatened or endangered, the government must review its status every five years.

A species is considered endangered if it is in danger of extinction in all of its range or in a portion of its range. A threatened species is one that extinction is considered to be in the foreseeable future and the species does not receive the same level of protection as those considered to be endangered. There are five main factors which determine a species’ listing:

1. habitat destruction or modification

2. overexploitation

3. disease or predation

4. inadequate present management mechanisms

5. other factors affecting existence


Each listed species has designated critical habitat and a recovery plan which includes: site-specific management plans, target population levels and implementation schedules. Currently, NMFS has jurisdiction over 60 species (20 marine mammals, 8 marine turtles, 34 marine and anadromous fish, 3 marine invertebrates [including 2 coral species], 1 marine plant).

For more information on marine species listed under the ESA click here.

To read the ESA bill in its entirety click here.

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Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA)

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) governs fish populations within U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) zone (3-200 nautical miles offshore). This act was signed into law in 1976 and there have been reauthorizations of the act several times since then, most recently in 2006. The original act in 1976 established the EEZ, created the eight regional Fishery Management Councils and required foreign vessels to apply for permits to fish in U.S. waters.

The act provides guidelines for fisheries. To follow the mandates of the MSA, the regional Fishery Management Councils develop Fishery Management Plans (FMPs) for every fishery within their geographic region. According to the status of each fish stock, the councils amend FMPs and also establish framework adjustments which provide specific fishery guidelines like catch quota, bycatch caps and gear restrictions.

In 1996, the Sustainable Fisheries Act was enacted as a reauthorization of the MSA. This Act introduced several new mandates including a program requiring government observers on board a certain number of fishing vessels, mandates to reduce the amount of bycatch caught by fishing vessels and mandates to reduce amounts of overfishing.

The most recent reauthorization of the MSA was finalized in 2006. Some of the most significant changes in the MSA Reauthorization of 2006 were the call to end overfishing for all U.S. fish populations by 2010, the protection of deep sea coral habitats, the increase in the role of science in FMP modifications and the improvement in data collection for both recreational and commercial fisheries.

To find out more about the 2006 Reauthorization click here.

To read the bill in its entirety click here.

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Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA)

The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) was enacted in 1972 in response to growing concerns that certain species and populations of marine mammals were in danger of extinction or depletion as a result of human activities. This legislation mandated the use of an ecosystem-based management approach to marine resource management. The MMPA authorized the establishment of the Marine Mammal Commission which has specific advisory and research duties. For more information on the Marine Mammal Commission, click here.

The MMPA banned the taking and importation of marine mammals and products. The word “take” is defined in the act as an attempt or act to harass, hunt, capture or kill. Also, “harassment” is defined as an act of pursuit, torment or annoyance which has the potential to injure, or disturb by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild.

Marine mammals are often injured or killed in commercial fishing operations. The MMPA requires that commercial fisheries reduce their takes of marine mammals to insignificant levels.

For more information on the MMPA click here.

To read the bill in its entirety click here.

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National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is considered to be one of the most important environmental laws. It was passed by Congress in 1969 and was signed into law on New Year’s Day in 1970 by President Nixon. This was his first official act of the 1970’s, a decade which is known as an important period for environmental protection. This act is completely procedural which means, unlike other laws, it does not include specific regulations. NEPA created the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) which is part of the Executive Office of the President. One of CEQ’s directives is to ensure that federal programs comply with NEPA.

NEPA requires all federal agencies to consider the environmental impacts of any major action such as building a dam or making significant changes to a fishery management plan. Prior to any major action taken on by the federal government (like construction of a port or testing underwater sonar), the federal agency taking that action must write an Environmental Assessment (EA) to determine if there will be impacts to the environment. If there is a finding of significant impact, the agency must draft an extensive Environment Impact Statement (EIS) to address the reason for the action, review alternatives to the action and allow for public comment.

After the EIS is released for public comment, individuals and groups will review the statement to ensure they have been thorough and taken a “hard look” at the alternatives to the action and the impacts to the environment. If the agency has failed to comply with any of the NEPA rules, they are vulnerable to lawsuits by environmental groups and communities which will be affected by the proposed action.

Learn more about NEPA.

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National Marine Sanctuary Act (NMSA)

The National Marine Sanctuaries Act (NMSA) was enacted in 1972 with the purpose of designating important marine environments as sanctuaries for their environmental, historical or cultural significance. Currently, there are 13 marine sanctuaries in the National Marine Sanctuary System, six of which were created after 1990.

A Marine National Monument was also designated, by President Bush through a Presidential proclamation in 2006, as a conservation area. The Papah?naumoku?kea Marine National Monument encompasses nearly 140,000 square miles of ocean waters and coral reefs around the northwestern Hawaiian Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

The national marine sanctuaries are managed by the Office of the National Marine Sanctuaries and each sanctuary has a separate staff and program in its local region. Scientific research and monitoring of the sanctuaries is authorized by the Secretary of Commerce.

Click here to learn more about National Marine Sanctuaries.

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