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Threatened & Endangered Species

Marine Conservation Home / NEXT: Habitat Conservation »

North Atlantic right whale, Eubalaena glacialis Until recently, humankind seemed to view the ocean as a source of infinite resources. Its vast size and depth and unexplored frontiers made the ocean appear invulnerable to overexploitation. The truth is that the populations of many species are decreasing at an unsustainable rate, and the number of species listed as endangered from marine life families such as whales, dolphins, manatees and dugongs, salmon, seabirds, sea turtles, and sharks to name a few, are on the rise. The threats to marine species are difficult to perceive because marine animals are not as visible as animals on land. But unfortunately, marine creatures are equally, if not more, vulnerable to problems such as habitat destruction and overexploitation. Shallow water animals that breathe air, like turtles, manatees, dugongs, and whales are often hit by boats and caught in fishing gear. Species such as turtles that lay their eggs on land often lose their nurseries due to coastal development. Animals that have taken millions of years to evolve, that are invaluable to all ecosystems, have and continue to vanish from places where they once flourished.

IUCN Red List of Threatened Marine Species »

Loss of habitats, the spread of disease, pollution, and unsustainable fishing practices are directly related to the actions of humans and recovery from these problems is rarely straightforward. Many marine species live in small, specific habitats while others require protection across their migration routes that cover vast areas and include breeding and feeding grounds. Marine protected areas (MPAs) have been designated in many places worldwide, which can help protect and restore threatened species, but MPAs are limited in size and therefore, limited to the marine life that inhabits those areas.

Not Enough Data

Smaller corals, invertebrates, and fish are crucial components to ecosystems. There are about 11,000 species less than 1-2 mm and about 15% of those have highly specific niches. Data on populations of small invertebrates and marine fish is difficult to collect. There is data for larger species that indicates huge losses of parrotfish, humphead wrasse, and grouper. Spiny lobsters are now very hard to find in any coral reef and the coconut crab is now only located in protected areas and tiny islands. Genetic diversity, habitat diversity, and species diversity must work together for global ecosystems to function.

Definitions

The definition of a threatened species is one that may become extinct if measures aren't taken to protect it. An endangered species is one that has a very small population and at greater risk of becoming extinct. Many species that become extinct never make it to the endangered species list.

The Endangered Species Act

In 1969, the Departments of the Interior, Agriculture, and Defense passed the Endangered Species Conservation Act to prevent mass extinctions of certain species. The use of endangered species by humans for food, fur, and other commercial uses was outlawed by this act and by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. In 1973, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of Wild Fauna and Flora was implemented to cut back on the trade of plants and animals in trouble. The 1973 Endangered Species Act is one of the most significant environmental laws in America and defines endangered or threatened species, puts plants and invertebrates under protection, requires federal agencies to start programs to conserve important habitats, creates a wide umbrella of laws against hunting for endangered species, and matches contributions from individual states towards the project. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) are responsible for the enforcement of the Endangered Species Act.

Scientific Research

Scientists and the general population are also worried that if the destruction of biodiversity continues at the current rate, a mass extinction event will eventually take place. Many species go extinct before there is time to save them. Without protection, resources like global fisheries and future medicines may be lost forever unless adequate policy, scientific research, and individual actions can prevent further loss.

The North Atlantic right whale is one example of an animal researched at Wood's Hole in response to the mysterious reduction in species number. Scientists think that a number of factors may contribute to the declining number of right whales in the North Atlantic including collisions with boats, entanglement with fishing gear, failure to reproduce, unprotected feeding grounds, and exposure to chemicals. Simply stating that an animal is on a protected list and banning hunting is not enough. There are many other human influences preventing survival.

Controversy

There is great controversy surrounding the endangered species list related to when a species should be considered endangered, when should the species be removed from the list, whether governments can take land to protect habitats from development, and loopholes to the protection laws. Placing a species on the endangered list often causes the value to soar for poachers and collectors.

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