24 Endangered Sea Creatures You Need to Know About and Save

The ocean’s vast expanses are home to incredible creatures, from the enormous whale shark to the tiny axolotl. Sadly, many of these marine animals are now on the brink of extinction due to human activities like overfishing, pollution, and habitat destruction. The number of endangered sea creatures is rising alarmingly, and many species have seen shocking population declines in just a few years. It’s crucial to act before our oceans are depleted.

You don’t need to be a diver or a marine biologist to make a difference. By educating yourself about marine species, spreading awareness, and practicing responsible fishing techniques, you can help protect these animals. Currently, around 2,270 marine species are listed as threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Let’s explore 24 fascinating marine animals facing extinction, understand the reasons behind their decline, and discover how you can help.

Great Hammerhead Shark

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The great hammerhead shark, Sphyrna mokarran, is an iconic species within the hammerhead family, easily recognized by its unique hammer-shaped head called a cephalofoil. This adaptation enhances their ability to navigate and detect prey and sets them apart as one of the ocean’s most distinctive predators. Despite their formidable appearance and prowess as hunters, great hammerheads are now facing a dire survival challenge.

Status: Critically endangered (CR)

Why They’re in Trouble: Over the past few decades, the great hammerhead shark has suffered a catastrophic decline of more than 80% across its global range. The primary threat to their survival comes from fisheries, where they are sought after as targeted catches and suffer as bycatch. Their fins are highly valued, making them particularly vulnerable to finning practices. This demand for shark fins, combined with the general lack of stringent fishing regulations in many parts of the world, has led to their critical endangerment.

How To Help: Organizations like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Shark Trust work tirelessly to conserve shark populations through research, advocacy, and direct action. By donating to these organizations, spreading the word about the plight of the great hammerhead, and choosing sustainable seafood options, you can contribute to the global effort to save these magnificent creatures from extinction. 

Gharial

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This distinct crocodilian species, sometimes referred to as the gavial, is notable for its long, narrow snout. Once prevalent across a vast range from Pakistan to Myanmar, gharials are now confined to parts of India and Nepal.

Status: Critically endangered

Why They’re in Trouble: Human activities, including hunting and habitat modification like the construction of dams, have severely impacted gharial populations. These changes disrupt their aquatic habitats, posing a significant threat to their survival.

How To Help: Educating yourself about gharials and supporting research and conservation efforts are crucial steps in ensuring their continued existence.

Smalltooth Sawfish

Smalltooth Sawfish
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Imagine a creature that looks like a blend between a crocodile and a shark – that’s the smalltooth sawfish for you. This unique species, actually a type of ray, thrives in the warm tropical waters off Florida’s coast. Historically, they roamed freely from Texas across the Gulf of Mexico to Florida and up the East Coast to North Carolina.

Status: Critically endangered

Why They’re in Trouble: The smalltooth sawfish’s numbers took a drastic hit due to habitat loss and bycatch. The construction boom along Florida’s coastlines led to the disappearance of the shallow estuaries, crucial for the nursing of juvenile sawfish. Concurrently, indiscriminate fishing practices resulted in these creatures being caught and killed in nets.

How To Help: If you’re into recreational fishing, take some time to learn about the NOAA Fisheries’ guidelines for the safe handling and release of smalltooth sawfish.

White Abalone

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The white abalone, a marine snail with a penchant for plant matter, clings to rocks with its muscular orange foot, grazing on algae and drifting kelp. Recognized by NOAA and once a staple in the diet of native peoples, this species was the first marine invertebrate to be listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2001.

Status: Endangered

Why They’re in Trouble: The white abalone’s population plummeted primarily due to overfishing in the 1970s along the California coast. They are slow to reach sexual maturity, between four to six years before they’re ready to reproduce, which compounded the impact of overfishing. They’re also prone to a withering syndrome, a disease affecting their digestive system.

How To Help: Educating yourself and safely releasing any white abalone you might encounter is a start. Consider supporting institutions like the Aquarium of the Pacific, which conducts research aimed at boosting white abalone numbers.

Axolotls

Axolotls
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The axolotl, often referred to as the “Mexican walking fish,” is not a fish but an amphibian, renowned for its unique appearance and remarkable regenerative abilities. Characterized by their wide, smiling mouths, feathery external gills, and a variety of color morphs ranging from wild-type greenish-brown to leucistic (pale pink with red eyes), axolotls possess a whimsical charm that belies their critical status in the wild. These captivating creatures have the ability to regenerate limbs, hearts, spinal cords, and parts of their brains, all without forming any scar tissue, making them a subject of intense study by biologists and medical researchers.

Status: Critically endangered

Why They’re in Trouble: Once prevalent in the lakes around Mexico City, axolotls now face extinction in their natural habitat due to urban expansion, pollution, and the introduction of invasive species like tilapia. These factors have decimated their populations, with estimates suggesting that as few as 50 to 1,000 individuals remain in the wild. The destruction of their freshwater habitats for development and the pollution from agricultural and industrial sources have drastically impacted their survival rates.

Legal Status in the U.S.: The ownership of axolotls is regulated in some U.S. states due to concerns over their potential to escape and interbreed with local salamander populations, which could disrupt native ecosystems.

How To Help: Conservation efforts by the Mexican government and nonprofit organizations focus on habitat restoration and promoting ecotourism to support axolotl populations. Contributing to these initiatives, educating others about the axolotl’s plight, and supporting research into their regeneration capabilities can play a vital role in ensuring their survival.

Green Turtle

Green Turtle
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Encountering a green sea turtle is an unforgettable experience, one that could become increasingly rare without ongoing protection efforts. These fascinating herbivores are named for the green hue of their fat, a coloration derived from their algae-rich diet. They nest in over 80 countries worldwide, with 11 distinct population segments currently listed as endangered.

Status: Endangered

Why They’re in Trouble: Green turtles face myriad threats, including accidental capture in fishing gear, habitat degradation due to egg harvesting, pollution, climate change, and disease.

How To Help: You can make a difference by joining ocean clean-up projects, respecting nesting sites, avoiding beach driving, minimizing light pollution near beaches to protect hatchlings, and reporting distressed turtles to local authorities.

Nassau Grouper

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The Nassau grouper, Epinephelus striatus, is a striking presence in the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. Recognizable by its distinctive bicolored pattern, this species plays a vital role in the health of coral reef ecosystems, serving as both predator and prey within its marine habitat.

Status: Critically Endangered

Why They’re in Trouble: The Nassau grouper has suffered dramatically due to overfishing, a consequence of high demand from both commercial and recreational fisheries. Since the 1980s, the population has seen a drastic decline of 80-90%. This significant reduction in numbers led to its classification as critically endangered by the IUCN in 2016.

How To Help: By choosing sustainably sourced seafood, you can reduce demand for overfished species and encourage the fishing industry to adopt more responsible practices. Supporting organizations dedicated to marine conservation can further amplify efforts to save the Nassau grouper and maintain the biodiversity of reef ecosystems.

Southern Sea Otter

Southern Sea Otter
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The southern sea otter, with the densest fur of any animal, relies on a high metabolism and constant foraging to survive in the cold Pacific waters.

Status: Endangered

Why They’re in Trouble: Past hunting for fur nearly drove them to extinction, with current threats including oil spills, habitat loss, and competition with fisheries.

How To Help: Supporting organizations like Defenders of Wildlife can provide essential resources for the conservation of sea otters and their environment.

Vaquita

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The vaquita, a small porpoise, holds the unfortunate title of the most endangered marine animal. An estimated 20 individuals remain in the wild, confined to the northern Gulf of California.

Status: Critically endangered

Why They’re in Trouble: Gillnet fishing, which creates a deadly trap for these porpoises, is the primary threat to their existence.

How To Help: Reporting illegal fishing activities, especially those involving gillnets, to the NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Hotline can aid in the protection of these elusive creatures.

North Atlantic Right Whale

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The North Atlantic right whale is a majestic marine giant, with adults reaching lengths of up to 52 feet (16 meters) and weights of up to 155,000 pounds (70,000 kilograms). Despite their impressive size, these whales are gentle giants, feeding primarily on plankton and small fish by straining huge volumes of ocean water through their baleen plates.

Status: Critically Endangered

Why They’re in Trouble: The primary threats facing North Atlantic right whales today are not from hunting, which has been banned for decades, but from modern human activities. Entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with ships off the east coast of North America pose significant risks to these whales. Such encounters can lead to serious injuries or death, drastically impacting their already dwindling population. By the end of 2018, the population was estimated to be just 409 individuals, with fewer than 250 of those being mature adults.

How To Help: Supporting regulations that require ships to slow down in areas where these whales are known to inhabit can significantly reduce the risk of collisions. Likewise, advocating for and supporting the development and implementation of whale-safe fishing gear can decrease the likelihood of entanglements. 

Humphead Wrasse

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Also known as Napoleon fish, the humphead wrasse is notable for its prominent bulge on its forehead. This large reef fish, found in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, undergoes a fascinating sex change during its life.

Status: Endangered

Why They’re in Trouble: Its rarity and predictable spawning locations make it vulnerable to overfishing.

How To Help: WWF offers information and ways to support the humphead wrasse, among other endangered species, through conservation efforts.

Whale Shark

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The whale shark holds the record as the largest fish in the ocean, with the largest known individual stretching over 61 feet. Despite their intimidating size, these gentle giants are filter feeders, subsisting on plankton and small fish.

Status: Endangered

Why They’re in Trouble: Whale sharks are threatened by targeted fishing, accidental capture, and vessel strikes, with additional pressures from oil and gas exploration.

How To Help: Supporting organizations like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) through whale shark adoption programs can contribute to the conservation of these magnificent creatures.

Marine Iguana

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The marine iguana is a unique species, native only to the Galápagos Islands. These remarkable lizards have adapted to an aquatic lifestyle, diving into the ocean to feast on algae, unlike their land-loving cousins.

Status: Vulnerable

Why They’re in Trouble: The marine iguana faces threats from natural phenomena like El Niño, which disrupt their food supply. Additionally, oil spills and invasive species introduced by humans pose significant risks to their survival.

How To Help: You can contribute to their conservation by adopting a marine iguana through the World Wildlife Fund, helping to fund efforts to protect their natural habitat and ensure their future.

Sunflower Sea Star

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The sunflower sea star, Pycnopodia helianthoides, is one of the ocean’s most fascinating and largest sea stars. Often referred to as starfish, these marine invertebrates have between 16 and 24 arms, each capable of stretching up to a meter (about 39 inches) in length. They grace the Pacific coastline of North America with their presence, playing a vital role in the marine ecosystem.

Status: Critically Endangered

Why They’re in Trouble: The sunflower sea star has experienced a dramatic decline of 90% in its population over the last three decades, a significant portion of which can be attributed to sea star wasting syndrome. This disease causes the creatures to waste away, leading to their eventual disintegration. While the exact cause of the wasting syndrome remains elusive, there is growing evidence to suggest that rising ocean temperatures have contributed to the spread and impact of the disease. Despite efforts to understand and combat this affliction, there has been no significant natural recovery observed, leading to the IUCN declaring the sunflower sea star critically endangered in 2020.

How To Help: You can contribute by donating to marine conservation groups dedicated to researching and protecting sea stars and their habitats. Additionally, advocating for policies that reduce carbon emissions and protect marine environments can help mitigate the broader impacts of climate change on oceanic ecosystems. Participating in coastal clean-up efforts and supporting sustainable seafood choices also contribute to the health of our oceans, providing a more stable environment for the sunflower sea star and countless other marine species.

Mediterranean Monk Seal

Mediterranean Monk Seal
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Once widespread across the Mediterranean, the Mediterranean monk seal now survives in small, isolated populations due to intense human activity and environmental changes.

Status: Critically endangered

Why They’re in Trouble: Factors include hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, overfishing, and conflict with fisheries.

How To Help: Learning about these seals through WWF and supporting conservation efforts can help mitigate their threats.

Finless Porpoise

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Recognized for its high intelligence, the finless porpoise calls the waters of southeast and eastern Asia home, particularly the Yangtze River. With their numbers dwindling to an estimated 1,000 to 1,800 individuals, their existence is precariously on the edge.

Status: Critically endangered

Why They’re in Trouble: The primary threats to the finless porpoise include illegal fishing practices and the destruction of their natural habitats.

How To Help: Supporting the WWF’s initiatives to rehabilitate wetlands and curb pollution along the Yangtze is a vital step in safeguarding the future of these intelligent creatures.

Dugong

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Resembling a manatee but distinctly different, the dugong is a gentle, placid marine mammal that thrives on a diet of sea grass. These gentle giants can weigh up to 650 pounds and play an essential role in their ecosystem.

Status: Vulnerable

Why They’re in Trouble: Threats to the dugong include coastal development that encroaches on their habitats, the diminishing availability of their sea grass diet, and water pollution.

How To Help: By adopting a dugong, you contribute to conservation efforts that aim to protect and preserve their natural environments.

Oceanic Whitetip Shark

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The oceanic whitetip shark, known for its distinctive rounded fins and preference for warmer waters, is an apex predator that plays a crucial role in maintaining the health of marine ecosystems. Unfortunately, this species is now facing a critical threat to its survival.

Status: Critically endangered

Why They’re in Trouble: The oceanic whitetip’s curious nature and tendency to inhabit surface waters have made it extremely vulnerable to fishing activities. Over the last six decades, the species has seen a catastrophic decline of 98% in its global population. This alarming rate of decline is largely attributed to overfishing, bycatch in commercial fishing gear, and the shark fin trade, which has significantly reduced their numbers in the open ocean.

How To Help: Advocating for stricter fishing regulations, reduction in bycatch, and a ban on the trade of shark fins can help mitigate the threats faced by this species. Organizations like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Shark Trust are at the forefront of these efforts, working to secure protected areas in the ocean where sharks can thrive without human interference.

Bluefin Tuna

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The bluefin tuna, known as the ocean’s most valuable fish, faces the brink of extinction. With mature individuals estimated at as few as 25,000, their survival hangs in the balance.

Status: Endangered

Why They’re in Trouble: Overfishing is the most significant threat to bluefin tuna, compounded by practices such as tuna ranching and a decline in their prey species.

How To Help: Raising awareness about the plight of the bluefin tuna and supporting organizations like the Center for Biological Diversity are key actions for their preservation.

Cape Penguin

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Native to Africa, the Cape penguin, also known as the jackass penguin for its distinctive call, breeds exclusively on the African continent. These penguins are easily recognized by their unique vocalizations and black-footed appearance.

Status: Endangered

Why They’re in Trouble: Loss of nesting sites, oil spills, and the depletion of their food sources due to overfishing pose significant threats to these seabirds.

How To Help: Supporting penguin conservation efforts through organizations like the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SAANCOB) and making sustainable seafood choices are effective ways to aid their survival.

Corals

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Corals, often mistaken for plant life, are indeed marine animals that form an integral part of our oceanic ecosystems. They provide essential shelter and breeding grounds for countless marine species.

Status: Over 25 coral species are listed as endangered or threatened

Why They’re in Trouble: Coral reefs are under threat from ocean acidification and destructive fishing practices like bottom trawling.

How To Help: Opting for sustainable seafood, conserving water, avoiding contact with coral reefs during dives, and choosing reef-safe sunscreen are all actions that contribute to coral conservation. Additionally, recycling and reducing your carbon footprint can have a positive impact on the health of coral ecosystems.

Gray Whale

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Gray whales, recognized by their unique dorsal humps rather than fins, span up to 50 feet in length and communicate through complex vocalizations. Known for their gentle nature near Baja California, they are fiercely protective mothers.

Status: Endangered in the Western North Pacific; Eastern stock delisted

Why They’re in Trouble: Historical overfishing decimated their populations, eradicating the North Atlantic group and endangering the Western North Pacific group. Conservation efforts have significantly revived the Eastern North Pacific population.

How To Help: Engaging with WWF to learn, donate, or even adopt a gray whale can support ongoing conservation efforts and ensure their survival for future generations.

Hector’s Dolphin

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Hector’s dolphins, gracing New Zealand’s coastal waters, number only around 7,400. This small and playful species is distinguished by its distinctive black and white body and rounded dorsal fin.

Status: Endangered

Why They’re in Trouble: Threats include bycatch in fishing nets, pollution, and disturbances from boats.

How To Help: Support WWF’s efforts in educating about and conserving this species by learning more and contributing to their projects.

Loggerhead Sea Turtles

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Named for their disproportionately large heads, loggerhead sea turtles are crucial to marine ecosystems. They play a key role in maintaining the health of seagrass beds and coral reefs.

Status: Varies from endangered to threatened across different regions

Why They’re in Trouble: Threats include accidental capture in fishing gear, habitat loss, and climate change.

How To Help: Reducing plastic waste and being mindful of marine life during ocean visits can protect these ancient mariners.

Manatees

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The manatee, often called the sea cow, is a gentle, plant-eating giant found in warm coastal areas and rivers. Florida’s waters host the largest population of these serene creatures.

Status: Threatened

Why They’re in Trouble: Manatees face threats from cold stress, toxic algae blooms induced by pollution, habitat destruction, and boat strikes.

How To Help: Supporting organizations like Defenders of Wildlife can aid in the conservation of manatees and their habitats.

Chinook Salmon

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Chinook salmon, or king salmon, are vital both ecologically and economically, supporting communities and wildlife. They require pristine rivers and oceans to thrive but face numerous challenges.

Status: Various populations are listed as endangered or threatened

Why They’re in Trouble: Declines are attributed to pollution, climate change, and bycatch.

How To Help: Engaging in habitat conservation efforts and supporting sustainable fisheries can contribute to their recovery.

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Katy Willis is a writer, lifelong homesteader, and master herbalist, master gardener, and canine nutritionist. Katy is a preparedness expert and modern homesteader practicing everyday preparedness, sustainability, and a holistic lifestyle.

She knows how important it is to be prepared for whatever life throws at you, because you just never know what's coming. And preparedness helps you give your family the best chance to thrive in any situation.

Katy is passionate about living naturally, growing food, keeping livestock, foraging, and making and using herbal remedies. Katy is an experienced herbalist and a member of the CMA (Complementary Medical Association).

Her preparedness skills go beyond just being "ready", she's ready to survive the initial disaster, and thrive afterward, too. She grows 100% organic food on roughly 15 acres and raises goats, chickens, and ducks. She also lovingly tends her orchard, where she grows many different fruit trees. And, because she likes to know exactly what she's feeding her family, she's a seasoned from-scratch cook and gluten-free baker.

Katy teaches foraging and environmental education classes, too, including self-sufficient living, modern homesteading, seed saving, and organic vegetable gardening.

Katy helps others learn forgotten skills, including basic survival skills and self-reliance.

She's been published on sites such as MSN, Angi, Home Advisor, Family Handyman, Wealth of Geeks, Readers Digest, and more.

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