For $150, visitors to West Edmonton Mall can swim with sea lions. (CBC)

Animal rights groups want tighter standards for Alberta zoos in light of a new program at West Edmonton Mall that allows people to pay $150 to swim with sea lions in the mall's aquarium.

Provincial regulations for public and staff safety only allow contact between animals and humans when a zoo has its plan approved by the Ministry of Sustainable Resource Development.

However, that's only required for animals that are native to Alberta or are protected species.

"Sea lions in that regard would not fall under our mandate,"  said ministry spokesperson Darcy Whiteside. "To do that, we would have to change a number of legislation laws. We just don't have that mandate that covers all animals."

Animal rights groups are questioning why the province exempts some species from zoo regulations.

"Our government of Alberta is very much more concerned with protecting the interests of those who profit off of animals instead of carrying out their responsibility to protect those animals and to protect the public,"  said Diane Charkiw of the Edmonton-based group Voice for Animals.

The mall has approval from the health authority, formerly known as Capital Health, to allow people to swim with the sea lions. 

The Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums is expected to review the program when the mall's accreditation comes up for renewal next year. 

Mall management has said the three sea lions enjoy the interaction with people.

But Lush Cosmetics and The Body Shop, which both have stores at West Edmonton Mall, have spoken out against the program because they believe the animals should not be in captivity and used for entertainment purposes.

West Edmonton Mall has been embroiled in controversy before over a marine-mammal exhibit. 

The sea lions were brought in three years ago to replace the mall's dolphin attraction. Three of the dolphins in the exhibit died, and the fourth died after being shipped to Florida.

With files from John Archer