ATTN: Jolie Harrison
Permits and Conservation Division
Office of Protected Resources
National Marine Fisheries Service
1315 East-West Highway, Room 13705
Silver Spring, MD 20910
Dear Ms. Harrison:
In response to the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), Office of Protected Resources’ recent request for comments on proposed policies and procedures for the National Inventory of Marine Mammals (NIMM), the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and AZA’s Marine Mammal Taxon Advisory Group (MMTAG) Steering Committee and Advisors respectfully submit the following comments. Overall, AZA appreciates and strongly supports the development of a timely, accurate and viable inventory for those marine mammals in our living collections. A common-sense inventory will assist both the agency and marine mammal holding facilities in carrying out the mandates of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and its amendments.
Founded in 1924, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of zoos and aquariums in the areas of conservation, education, science, and recreation. AZA's 233 accredited aquariums, nature centers, science centers and zoos annually host more than 195 million visitors, collectively generate more than $22 billion in annual economic activity, and support more than 208,000 jobs across the country. In 2017, AZA-accredited facilities spent $220 million on field conservation in 128 countries benefiting 863 species and subspecies. Within those 863 species and subspecies, 281 are listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The millions of people that come through our doors each year to view our marine mammal ambassadors learn about the wonderful world of the sea and the fragility of its diverse ecosystems. We believe our message of respect, wonder and appreciation of the natural world contributes significantly to marine mammal conservation and management.
AZA’s Marine Mammal Taxon Advisory Group (MMTAG) advocates and facilitates the best care, welfare, and management of marine mammals in human care and promotes the conservation of wild populations worldwide. MMTAG’s goals include:
For the purposes of the recent Federal Register notice, we have developed the following comments related to reporting births, reporting cause of death, and Owner and Facility Data Review/Verification and Data Disclaimer for NIMM:
Currently, there are three reporting provisions as stated in the 1994 MMPA (Section 104. 16 U.S.G. 1347) relating to NMFS maintaining the National Inventory of Marine Mammals. These are:
These provisions allow NMFS, under the MMPA to meet its statutory obligations to maintain an inventory that includes information on all living marine mammals in human care in the United States. We appreciate the agency’s desire to provide clarity on the inventory reporting requirement related to births. Providing an appropriate definition of birth could clearly delineate what is required to be reported in order to maintain an accurate inventory. The definition of birth suggested by NMFS…. “the emergence of a living marine mammal from the body of its mother, regardless of how long it survives” is open to interpretation on the word “emergence” and could result in inconsistent reporting, and therefore an inaccurate inventory. One example would be in the case of a cetacean when the flukes emerge and are moving, indicating the animal is alive, and then dies during the birthing process before it becomes a separate, physical, living entity.
AZA proposes using the definitions of birth and being by Oxford Dictionary:
*BIRTH: The emergence of a baby or other young from the body of its own mother; the start of life as a physically separate being.
**BEING: being alive, living.
By using these definitions, once the body of the pup/calf fully emerges from the mother and the umbilical cord is disconnected, a live pup/calf becomes a physically separate being and must be reported to NIMM. A fetus that is dead at the point it fully emerges from the mother and the umbilical cord is disconnected would not be reported because it is not a physically separate being. AZA sees no need to define stillbirth as it is not a requirement of the MMPA and is not needed for clarity on this issue. AZA strongly believes this approach provides clear guidance and is consistent with the intent for reporting progeny as required by the MMPA.
In recent litigation (Marino v National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Case No. 1:18-cv-02750), NMFS explained the words “cause of death” in connection with the MMPA inventory reporting requirement, are to be narrowly construed: “The ‘cause of death’ means only a statement as to what brought about the animal’s death... ” AZA would like to commend NMFS on this innovative method of standardizing and reporting the cause of death in marine mammals, however feels the list of options is more expansive than the MMPA requires for inclusion in NIMM. While not always obvious, this method will allow Owners and/or Facilities to select the most relevant circumstances but should be simplified to a basic Tier 1 list that provides enough detail to accurately characterize the event. While AZA is opposed to the two-tier system, should NMFS decide to use the two-tiered approach, AZA has included a list of recommendations below. We look forward to seeing the ‘User Guide’ that will provide definition and guidance for each category.
Additionally, AZA is opposed to releasing any cause of death details to the public via a search of the data or through a FOIA request. AZA member facilities have always regarded this information to be confidential and not appropriate for interpretation by lay-persons. This information could easily be misinterpreted or misused to erroneously characterize the quality of care our animals receive.
Below is a list of recommendations related to TABLE 1 – Proposed Standardized Tiered Categories for Reporting for Marine Mammal Primary Cause of Death.
Recommend having the ability to report “Results pending” in cases where a definitive diagnosis has yet to be determined by the end of the 30 day reporting period. Most organizations do not have an on-site pathologist. In many cases, it is necessary to send histology samples to a veterinary pathology lab in order to determine the definitive diagnosis. This, and additional testing/staining can take up to an additional eight weeks to complete.
AZA understands the diligence required for Owners and Facilities to ensure the information in NIMM is accurate. The suggested disclaimer “The data in NIMM, going back to 1972, has gone through numerous database migrations and errors may exist. There may be data that cannot be recovered or verified. NMFS relies on data self-reported by marine mammal Owners and Facilities. NMFS cannot provide any guarantee to the accuracy, reliability, or completeness of information” obviates the need for the four proposed Owner/Facility review fields:
These review fields, and the option to leave the review field blank if no action has been taken by the Owner or Facility, adds a layer of unnecessary complexity and may confuse the public’s interpretation of the validity of the information. Therefore, AZA strongly discourages the use of data certification fields and proposes the agency simply use the disclaimer.
Additionally, AZA proposes removing the word “data” from the disclaimer to avoid confusing the inventory as a scientific database and reworking the disclaimer to avoid creating the perception that the errors are primarily a result of inaccurate information reported by Owners and Facilities.
Therefore, we propose the following disclaimer:
“The information in NIMM, going back to 1972, has gone through numerous migrations and errors may exist. NMFS relies on self-reported information by marine mammal Owners and Facilities. There may be information that cannot be recovered or verified. NMFS cannot guarantee the accuracy, reliability, or completeness of the information.”
Owners and Facilities are required to provide information to NIMMs per the MMPA and conditions outlined in the statute. Since it is the sole responsibility of Owners and Facilities to provide this information, AZA recommends removing the following language “information provided by third parties or found in the public domain may be submitted to Owners and Facilities for their review and appropriate action in compliance with the MMPA.” Promotion by NIMM for third parties to contact Owners and Facilities is inappropriate and could lead to misuse and annoyance activity by persons whose intent is disruption instead of clarification and accuracy of information. Owners and Facilities will continue to encourage NMFS staff to contact Owners and Facilities directly if they have been alerted to an error in information required by the MMPA.
Thank you for the opportunity to comment and we look forward to working with you and your dedicated staff in the future on this and many other fish and wildlife conservation initiatives.