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 as part of our commitment to saving species from extinction.

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

Cetaceans (Dolphins and Whales)

Each year 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.

  • 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 SAFE Vaquita

Entanglement in gillnets is the biggest threat facing vaquita and with fewer than 30 individuals alive, the vaquita is the most endangered cetacean in the world. The AZA SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction Vaquita program is striving to make the plight of the vaquita known to all, by developing a public engagement project that raises awareness about efforts to mitigate the threats of illegal fishing and widespread use of gillnets and to educate the public on purchasing vaquita-friendly seafood and products.

  • In early 2017, the Mexican government declared the need for an emergency effort to relocate vaquita porpoises to a safe haven until their natural habitat is cleared of gillnets.  Over 100 members contributed more than $1 million to a rescue project, while others made staff available to develop plans, protocols, and facilities for the search and housing of animals; help the international team operate efficiently and maximize communication; provide husbandry expertise in the event of vaquita being brought into human care. The funds raised by AZA members helped convince the Mexican government to commit an additional $3 million to the rescue effort.

Polar Bears

Both the Southern Beaufort Sea and Chukchi/Bering seas populations of polar bears (Ursus maritimus)  in Alaska are declining due to the loss of sea ice caused by climate change.  Because polar bears depend upon sea ice for their sustenance, any reduction in sea ice negatively affects the number and behavior of polar bears and their prey, which puts polar bears at risk of becoming endangered in the foreseeable future. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) listed polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2009.

  • AZA and it's Bear TAG, Polar Bear SSP Program, accredited facilities, 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 collaborates with Polar Bears International (PBI) to address polar bear and arctic habitat conservation through support for scientific research and educational outreach programs. PBI offers Leadership Camps to help people become inspired by polar bears and gain the knowledge and skills needed to reduce CO2 in their home communities. Read the executive summary of AZA’s partnership with PBI.

  • Numerous AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums have become Arctic Ambassador Centers (AACs) that are certified by Polar Bears International (PBI). These facilities are committed to increasing their level of institutional and community action towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions to save not only polar bear habitat but also the habitats of species being negatively affected by climate disruption in all global regions. Read more about Arctic Ambassador Centers and explore the list of AZA facilities that currently hold this designation.

Sea Lions

The recovery of the California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) population following the 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 a decrease in an endangered species of salmon. Sea lions preying on salmon have gained more than double the average weight for the species and no amount of hazing has effectively dissuaded the sea lions from overeating. 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 and it's Marine Mammal TAG partnered with the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums (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. An additional four sea lions were relocated to two AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums in 2009. 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 continue to work cooperatively with federal and state agencies to identify relocation space for these animals.

Sirenians (Manatees)

The endangered Florida manatee is protected by both the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972) and the Endangered Species Act (1973). The 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 facilities are extensively involved in manatee rescue, rehabilitation, and release programs including the Cincinnati Zoo, Columbus Zoo, EPCOT's Living Seas, ZooTampa at Lowry Park, Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, SeaWorld Orlando, and SeaWorld San Diego. In addition, EPCOT's Living Seas and Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium are very involved in manatee behavioral research.

Rescue, Rehabilitation, and Release

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. 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."

  • AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums serve as emergency rescue and rehabilitation centers as part of a multi-organizational regional stranding network. 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.

Marine Mammal AZA Conservation Grants Fund Projects

The AZA Conservation Grants Fund (CGF) 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. 
  • Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin Education Programs: Benefits for Conservation Education and Animal Welfare  Lance Miller, The University of Southern Mississippi. 
  • 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. 
  • Non-Invasive Reproductive Monitoring and Pregnancy Diagnosis in Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus). Dr. Terri Roth and Dr. Monica Stoops, Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden.
  • Bone Density of the Bottlenose Dolphin: A Model for Detecting Effects of Anthropogenic Contaminant Exposure. Deborah Duffield, Ph.D., Portland State University
  • A Low-cost Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Imaging System for Large Whale Health Assessment, Rachel Cassoff, Duke University Marine Lab
  • Community Outreach in Support of Vaquita Conservation - On the Ground and In the Air, Samantha Young - San Diego Zoo Global
  • A Novel, Non-Invasive Approach to Developing a Bench-Side Assay for Pregnancy Diagnosis in Wild and Captive Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus), Erin Curry, Ph.D., and Terri Roth, Ph.D. - Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden
  • Impacts of Underwater Noise on Mother-Calf Communication in Endangered Beluga Whales, Valeria Vergara, Ph.D., Ocean Wise Conservation Association
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