Now concluding its seventh year, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction program has grown to 33 species programs as of October 2022. SAFE species programs harness the collective strengths of AZA-accredited organizations and conservation partners to effectively preserve species and their ecosystems.
SAFE coral, shark and ray, and SAFE sea turtle are part of the aquatic-based SAFE species program collection, and during their inaugural three-year action plans, each program tackled challenging issues on a regional and international scale. After wrapping up their initial program plans, these programs have reflected on those initial accomplishments and set forth new goals to reach their long-term vision for these species.
SAFE coral published its second three-year program plan in June 2021 and began to make progress advancing three program efforts: reef enhancement through coral restoration, coral production for future restoration, and development of public awareness and stakeholder engagement activities.
During the past year, SAFE coral partners generated 40,000 corals to be planted onto Florida’s reefs as a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Mission Iconic Reefs. Most of the corals are propagated and grown within nurseries until they’re a suitable size to be transplanted onto wild reefs; aquarium spawning is an emerging area of work and restoration tool that utilizes the AZA community’s expertise in environmental management and animal welfare.
To continue furthering aquarium spawning techniques, a coral nursery was constructed at Atlantis in The Bahamas as part of an agreement between the Bahamian national government and Disney’s Animals, Science and Environment. Three AZA member institutions are now operating aquarium spawning systems, and in the past year they have collectively spawned 15 species of coral.
The program’s public awareness and stakeholder engagement goals also made good progress with the formation of an education/awareness working group. This five-person team will first be conducting a needs-survey across the AZA community and finding out what sort of educational materials are currently being used to teach about corals. SAFE coral’s leadership has been involved with building partnerships with more than a dozen colleges and universities and all relevant federal and state agencies. In the past year, members of SAFE coral have published more than 25 scientific publications, served on more than a dozen conservation working groups, and attended all major coral reef conferences. SAFE coral currently includes 21 program partners who are committed to continuing the advancement of the new action plan.
SAFE shark and ray published its second three-year program plan in February 2022 and has already made significant progress towards its overarching goal of integrating the program into existing global collaborative efforts to safeguard shark and ray populations. The Elasmobranch Blood Project team is currently finding existing data from established digital datasets like ZIMS and TRACKS to fine-tune its dataset, the program’s International Census for Chondrichthyans in Human Care (ICCHC) working group is continuing to build on its objectives to optimize participation and create opportunities for collaborative conservation, and several SAFE-related presentations were given at Sharks International in October 2022 in Spain.
The Action Hub website, where all things “sharks and rays” can be located, was launched during the second-half of 2022, and the program’s communications working group is identifying stakeholders, content, and delivery methods to successfully communicate with selected audiences. In order to provide dedicated support towards the program’s efforts, Windy Arey-Kent was hired as SAFE shark and ray’s conservation coordinator in June 2022—the first time an employee has been hired to solely focus on a SAFE program and its initiatives.
After receiving funds from a 2022 AZA Conservation Grants Fund award, several program partners will be holding a Shark and Ray Handling Best Practices Workshop, tentatively scheduled for spring 2023; the workshop aligns with the program’s objective to promote and enable SAFE partners as key advisors in supporting best practices for shark and ray welfare in both field conservation and research. With over 40 program partners and collaborating organizations, SAFE shark and ray has set ambitious expectations for itself as projects started during the last program plan meld into the new action plan.
SAFE sea turtle maintained momentum for its current program plan, despite continued challenges faced by its zoo, aquarium, and field conservation partners as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Through its small grants program and collaboration with the Oceanic Society and The State of the World’s Turtles, the team was able to fund ten projects in five different countries; the projects focused on two global priorities of critically endangered sea turtle populations: eastern Pacific leatherback and Kemp’s ridley. From working with artisanal fishers to build relationships around sustainable fisheries in Ecuador, to supporting stranding response teams in Texas, each awarded project showcased progress towards the SAFE program’s conservation goals. To date, SAFE sea turtle has been able to award over $32,000 to 22 small grants operating in six different countries and implementing a diverse range of sea turtle conservation works.
As part of its public and stakeholder engagement objective to support community education, the program provided $7,000 to print 10,000 copies of a children’s book, Soy Lora, that illustrates the story of a Kemp’s ridley turtle. By printing the books in Spanish, community educators in Mexico would be able to utilize them to describe the threats around Kemp’s ridley nesting beaches and the conservation challenges this critically endangered species faces right in the children’s backyard. SAFE sea turtle’s program plan is nearing its three-year anniversary, and a major task for the program’s leadership and 15 program partners will be to develop new goals and objectives with respect to past successes and lessons learned.
For the first time in AZA SAFE’s history, all five aquatic-based SAFE programs—African penguin, coral, sea turtle, shark and ray, and vaquita—decided to pool their collective knowledge into a joint effort called SAFE Seascapes to find solutions to their program’s most pressing issues. While each program champions a different species, they all are striving to preserve our underwater world. By being a part of SAFE, AZA members, government agencies, in situ partners, and other organizations are able to come together to work towards a profound, long-term difference.
To get involved, please reach out to the program leaders and visit AZA SAFE to learn more.
Please contact AZA to get connected with the programs below:
Katey Leban is the conservation coordinator at AZA.