The Houston Zoo has demonstrated its commitment to wildlife in countless ways and has been a strong supporter of WCN’s work and of the conservation efforts of our partners in the field. This year, as we introduce new partners working in marine conservation—Global Penguin Society, who protect all penguin species, and MarAlliance, who protect various species, predominantly sharks and rays—we were especially excited to see the Zoo’s recent campaign to protect marine life.
The Houston Zoo is working to reduce threats to wildlife worldwide by rallying their guests and community to do simple things to reduce their impact on the environment, such as reducing the use of plastic water bottles and bags that pollute the oceans. They have created several focused campaigns, called “Take Action” campaigns, each addressing a specific threat to an animal species. The Zoo provides medical care for over 80 sea turtles each year, some of which have been injured by fishing line or other marine debris. This connection to helping injured marine wildlife has inspired the Zoo to focus one of the Take Action campaigns on reducing marine debris, a major threat not only to sea turtles, but to all marine and coastal wildlife worldwide. Wanting to lead by example, after launching the campaign in July 2015 the Zoo removed all bags from their gift shops and now only offer reusable canvas bags.
In May, the Zoo had the opportunity to share their marine debris Take Action campaign with their conservation partners at UC Davis Wildlife Health Center’s Latin America Program in Argentina—who work to protect penguins, sea turtles, whales, and other marine wildlife. The director of the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center’s Latin America Program had visited the Houston Zoo in early 2016 and seen their Take Action program and asked if the Zoo could help them build their own similar campaign. The Zoo agreed to fund the effort and spent a few months planning and then executing a two-day marine debris workshop that was led by the Mundo Marino Aquarium, the Buenos Aires Zoo, and the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center’s Latin America Program.
The workshop was aimed at prioritizing the most relevant marine debris threats on the coast of Argentina and determining strategies to combat these threats. A group made up of conservation organizations, zoos, aquariums, recycling/waste centers, and town, state and federal government officials decided that plastic bags, plastic water bottles, and discarded fishing line were the major threats and top priorities to address. Participants then identified strategies to combat these three major marine debris threats. Strategies included increasing the number of fishing line recycling bins in popular fishing areas, and making signage on these bins more visual and appealing. In addition, wildlife officials recommended more enforcement of regulations regarding discarded fishing line in protected areas. Plastic bags have been banned in many coastal towns in Argentina and workshop participants discussed expanding these bans and working with local schools to reduce the use of plastic bags and water bottles. Another strategy identified from the workshop was to conduct community interviews/surveys of recycling habits and knowledge before launching school-wide campaigns to inform communities how to separate and recycle items. The communities will then be surveyed after the school intervention to see how recycling and sorting habits changed.
The workshop culminated in a beach cleanup held in conjunction with the release of a group of ten penguins that had been stranded on a local beach after coming into contact with oil. The penguins had been rehabilitated by Mundo Marino Aquarium staff, and their release helped reinforce the connection between clean beaches and healthy wildlife. Although these penguins were not specifically impacted by plastic debris, the connection was made how foreign materials in our oceans, whether oil, plastics or other debris, impact wildlife negatively and how our communities can make small changes to reduce these threats.
Since the workshop, participants have reached out to the Zoo with fresh ideas and renewed excitement on how they are going to reduce threats to marine wildlife.