Celebrating 40 Years of the Endangered Species Act

Written by on December 27, 2013 in Policy & Ocean Law

Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which was passed by Congress on December 28, 1973.

Elkhorn coral.

Elkhorn coral. Photo credit: NOAA SEFSC.

Species are listed under the ESA as ‘endangered’ or ‘threatened’ based on their biological status and threats to their existence. The goal of the ESA is to conserve those species and their ecosystems. NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) share responsibility for implementing the Endangered Species Act.

The ESA protects over 1,400 species in the U.S. or its waters and over 600 other species around the globe. In general, land and freshwater species are managed by USFWS, while marine and anadromous species (ones that live their adult lives in the ocean, but move to freshwater to reproduce or spawn) are managed by NMFS. NMFS oversees 93 species on the ESA, 20 of which are foreign species. Management includes the designation of critical habitat and the development and implementation of recovery plans for threatened and endangered species.

When a species is listed as ‘endangered’ it becomes illegal for anyone to “take” that species. The ESA defines “take” as harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, collect, or attempt to do any of these things. Certain organizations or individuals may be granted limited take through special permits.

NMFS is responsible for:

  • 29 marine mammal species
  • 16 marine turtle species
  • 44 species of marine and anadromous fish
  • 4 marine invertebrate species
  • 1 species of marine plant

For a complete list of species protected by NOAA Fisheries, click here.

Has the ESA been successful?

Dan Ashe, Director of the USFWS, defines his measure of success not by the number of species listed or delisted, but by the direction those species are headed in now: “We have saved species from going extinct, we’ve stabilized those species and we’ve put them on the road to recovery,” he says in a video about the 40th anniversary. You can hear more of Dan’s thoughts here.

“Less than one percent of the species listed under the Act have become extinct,” said Sam Rauch, Head of NOAA Fisheries.

But if avoiding extinction isn’t enough, here are a three definite success stories:

Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas), Hawaiian Population:
The Hawaiian population is currently under review for delisting. According to the petition, many of the threats to the Hawaiian green turtle population have been eliminated or reduced and the nesting population has increased at a rate of 5.7% annually since the 1970s. In 2004, there were approximately 61,000 individuals, 83% of pre-exploitation levels in the 1940s. The Atlantic population has also grown, increasing from only 464 individuals in 1989 to 10,701 in 2011.

Green turtle.

Green turtle in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. Photo credit: Mark Sullivan, NOAA.

Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae), North Pacific:
The North Pacific humpback whale population is under review for delisting. This population has increased from fewer than 1,400 whales in 1966 to about 20,000 whales today. The group that filed the petition doesn’t want whaling to resume, but believes the population is large enough to be removed from the list in order to maintain a balance with the species that are being added.

Humpback Whale breaching.

Humpback Whale breaching. Photo credit: NOAA NEFSC.

Steller sea-lion (Eumetopias jubatus), Eastern DPS:
The eastern DPS of Steller sea lions increased from an estimated 18,040 animals in 1979 to 70,174 in 2010. NOAA removed the eastern population segment from the Endangered Species Act in October 2013. An analysis of possible threats indicated that none are likely to cause the eastern DPS to become endangered in the foreseeable future. The review states that the Marine Mammal Protection Act and other laws will provide adequate protection for this population without the help of the ESA.

Steller sea lions.

Steller sea lions. Photo credit: NOAA.

To learn more:

Copyright © 2013 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of MarineScienceToday.com. She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .

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