Marine Mammal Conservation

« Back to Conservation Initiatives


Marine Mammal Conservation Page Photo

Marine Mammal Conservation

AZA provides conservation and education resources, subsidizes financial support, advocates on behalf of marine mammals, and maintains partnerships with like-minded government and non-government agencies such as the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums (AMMPA) and the International Marine Animal Trainers Association (IMATA) to raise awareness of marine mammal issues and promote marine mammal conservation.

The AZA Marine Mammal and Bear Taxon Advisory Groups (TAGs) provides discussion forums for marine mammal husbandry, veterinary care, and ethical issues, recommends marine mammal species for AZA Studbooks and Species Survival Plan (SSPs) Programs, establishes management, research, and conservation priorities for these species, and develops resources to help AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums develop successful, sustainable, and strategic marine mammal conservation and education programs.

Dolphin Drive Fisheries

Each year during a period from September to April, the Japanese government permits fishermen to drive thousands of dolphins and other small whales into shallow village coves in Taiji where they are slaughtered - violently butchered with knives and clubs. Most people in Japan are unaware of this inhumane practice because the fishermen go to great lengths to hide the hunts, which have been under fire from conservation and animal welfare groups for years. Scientific evidence confirms that dolphins are highly intelligent, self-aware, and sentient mammals with closely bonded social lives and important inter-generational cultural traditions. The drives are an inhumane practice, inflicting severe pain and suffering, that no animal should experience.

AZA Actions:

  • In March, 2004, the AZA Board approved the following policy which supports the termination of drive fisheries: Zoos and aquariums accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) are experts in animal care, wildlife conservation and educating the public about wildlife issues. The AZA strongly believes that the practice of killing or taking dolphins and whales in drive fisheries is inhumane and should be terminated immediately.
  • AZA sponsors a campaign to halt Japan's annual dolphin drive called Act for Dolphins which was launched by a coalition of zoo and aquarium professionals and scientists seeking to raise awareness and bring an end to the Taiji slaughter. Over 124,000 signatures have been obtained on a petition to end the dolphin slaughter in Japan. You can add your name to the End the Dolphin Slaughter Petition to help this vital cause.

Polar Bears

There are two populations of polar bears inhabiting Alaska. The Southern Beaufort Sea population has approximately 1500 bears. The Chukchi/Bering seas population has approximately 2000 bears. Both populations are declining. On May 8, 2009, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) listed the Polar Bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Studies have demonstrated that significant losses of sea ice are being caused by climate disruption. Because polar bears depend upon sea ice for their sustenance, any reduction in sea ice negatively effects the number and behavior of polar bears and their prey, which puts polar bears at risk of becoming endangered in the foreseeable future. Alaska Natives are permitted by the USFWS to take polar bears for subsistence purposes, however this practice, combined with the loss of sea ice habitat, indicates that the Chukchi/Bering Seas population is declining below historical levels.

AZA Actions:

  • AZA and it's Bear TAG, Polar Bear SSP Program, accredited institutions, and Green Scientific Advisory Group (SAG) work cooperatively to address issues related to polar bear survival and climate disruption.
  • AZA, in collaboration with the Ocean Project, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the National Aquarium in Baltimore, has conducted a comprehensive public research survey to quantify public awareness, attitudes, and actions concerning the ocean, environment, and climate disruption. This information is being used to develop mechanisms that will effectively increase public awareness of the issues surrounding climate disruption and the species that are affected by it, and engage citizen conservation action.
  • AZA also collaborates with Polar Bear International to address polar bear and arctic habitat conservation through support for scientific research and educational outreach programs.

Sea Lions

The recovery of the California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) population following implementation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 has been dramatic. An increase in the population to historically high numbers appears to have created some competition and conflict with other endangered species of salmon. Each year, an increasing number of California sea lions prey upon these salmon species as they return to the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. The sea lions have gained more than double the average weight for the species and no amount of hazing has effectively dissuaded the sea lions from gorging themselves on the salmon. As a result, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Service has authorized the trapping and placement, or lethal removal, of sea lions which have been identified as repeat offenders over the next three years.

AZA Actions:

  • AZA and its Marine Mammal TAG partnered with the AMMPA to determine how many spaces are available in zoos and aquariums for the relocation of some of these very obese, adult, and untrained trapped sea lions.
  • In 2008 The AZA Marine Mammal TAG worked with the NOAA Fisheries Service and the Washington and Oregon Departments of Fish and Wildlife to successfully relocate six of these sea lions to three AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums.
  • In 2009 an additional four sea lions were relocated to two AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums.
  • These animals have been cared for under stringent veterinary care and all are either in, or close to, their normal weight range and are doing very well with medical training procedures.
  • The AZA Marine Mammal TAG and the AMMPA will continue to work cooperatively with federal and state agencies to identify relocation space for these animals.


The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) is the Federal agency charged with protecting the Nation's threatened and endangered species including the Florida Manatee which is protected by both the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972) and the Endangered Species Act (1973). The endangered Florida manatee is at risk from both natural (e.g. red tide, cold stress, disease) and man-made causes (boat strikes, compression by flood gates or locks, entanglement or ingestion of fishing gear). Several AZA-accredited institutions are extensively involved in Manatee rescue, rehabilitation, and release programs including the Cincinnati Zoo, Columbus Zoo, EPCOT's Living Seas, Lowry Park Zoo, Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, SeaWorld of Florida, and SeaWorld California. In addition EPCOT's Living Seas and Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium are very involved in manatee behavioral research.

Rescue, Rehabilitation, and Release

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), "Over the last decade, approximately 40,000 stranded marine mammals (cetaceans and pinnipeds only) have been reported by the regional stranding network with an average of 3,600 strandings per year." Marine animal strandings may be caused by natural or human-related factors. Natural factors may be related to disease, biotoxins, neurotoxins such as red tide, predation, age, and/or temperature. Human-related factors may be related to entanglement, boat strikes, lock compression, harassment, foreign object ingestion, contaminants, and acoustic trauma.

AZA Actions:

  • Numerous AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums dedicate substantial facilities, staff, resources, and funding to support the rescue, rehabilitation, release, and subsequent tracking and monitoring of stranded or injured marine animals including manatees, dolphins, whales, seals, sea lions, otters, sea turtles, and sea birds.
  • AZA supports the following Congressional measures:
    - HR 556 Southern Sea Otter Recovery and Research Act: To establish a program of research, recovery and other activities under the US Fish and Wildlife Service to provide for the recovery of the southern sea otter.
    - S 859: To amend the John Prescott Marine Mammal Rescue Assistance Grant Program to authorize entanglement response agreements and updates existing practices and procedures for rescuing and rehabilitating stranded marine mammals.

Update on Southern Sea Otters:

The Southern Sea Otter Recovery and Research Act (H.R. 556), passed in the House of Representatives. The bill required a two-thirds majority to pass, and it received about 75% Yeas to 25% Nays (316 to 107). On July 29, 2009, the bill was received in the Senate, read twice, and referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. The various groups working on the passage of this bill now seek Senate support. Read more about H.R. 556.

Marine Mammal AZA Conservation Endowment Fund Projects

The AZA Conservation Endowment Fund (CEF) supports the cooperative marine mammal-related conservation, scientific, and educational initiatives of AZA, its members, and its collaborators.

  • Investigation of Streptococcus bovis Complex and Associated Valvular Endocarditis; A Major Cause of Mortality in Northern Sea Otters (Enhydra lutris kenyoni). Carrie Goertz, Alaska SeaLife Center. $19,797 CEF
  • Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin Education Programs: Benefits for Conservation Education and Animal Welfare
    Lance Miller, The University of Southern Mississippi. $6,529 CEF
  • Communicating Solutions: Evaluating Human-Dolphin Interactions in High Traffic Areas of Sarasota Bay with High School Student Volunteers. David Niebuhr, Mote Marine Laboratory; Kim Bassos-Hull, Mote Marine Laboratory; Jim Wharton, Mote Marine Laboratory; Randall Wells, Mote Marine Laboratory. $9,310 DWCF
  • Non-Invasive Reproductive Monitoring and Pregnancy Diagnosis in Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus). Dr. Terri Roth and Dr. Monica Stoops, Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. $22,472 CEF