The Great Aquarium Debate

In recent years, documentaries like The Cove and Blackfish have drawn our attention to the cruelties behind whale and dolphin captivity, which has in turn shone a spotlight on aquariums in general.

In recent years, documentaries like The Cove and Blackfish have drawn our attention to the cruelties behind whale and dolphin captivity, and the brutal means by which we take these animals from the wild. Public opinion has turned increasingly against keeping cetaceans for the sake of human entertainment. Most people now accept, at least among the dive community, that keeping captive cetaceans is wrong.

In my view, we have already answered the question of whether or not we should keep whales and dolphins in captivity. We will not revisit it here. However, hundreds of aquariums worldwide do not include cetaceans among their displays. Here we’ll take on the aquarium debate: should condemn these marine-life displays as well, or do they have some societal value?

The Aquarium Debate: No

The argument that the abnormal conditions of a life in captivity may have adverse affects on an animal’s mental and physical wellbeing applies to many commonly kept aquarium species. Sharks, for example, have exceptionally well-developed senses. These include the ability to pick up vibrations and electrical currents from the water around them. In an aquarium, a tank’s relatively small size and the human spectators’ noise and vibrations often overstimulate the sharks’ senses. Although many aquariums favor smaller, bottom-dwelling shark species, others have attempted to display large, migratory species.

In the wild, these animals would naturally travel great distances on a daily basis. The most obvious example is the whale shark. Several of the world’s most famous aquariums, including Georgia Aquarium in the United States and Churaumi Aquarium in Okinawa, Japan keep or have kept members of this species. The inability to satisfy their natural swimming instinct can lead to stress, a refusal to eat and illness. A study of 16 whale sharks kept at Churaumi Aquarium from 1980 to 1998 found that, on average, the sharks survived just 502 days in captivity.

Animals sourced from the wild

Another potential argument against aquariums is the fact that institutions source the vast majority of their displays from the wild. Aquarists now captive-breed more than 90 percent of ornamental freshwater fish species. Thus far, however, they have had little success commercially breeding marine species. As a result, collectors remove over 11 million reef fish from the ocean every year to meet the demand of public and private aquariums in the United States alone. Removing fish species from the ocean on such a large scale can have serious consequences. In Hawaii, for example, wild populations of yellow tang are down by 70 to 90 percent as a direct result of collection for aquaria.

Because the marine environment depends upon a fragile balance, the population-collapse of species like the yellow tang can impact an entire reef. While some tropical fisheries are well managed, many others are not. Fish collectors in developing countries often use cyanide to poison fish. This stuns them, making them easier to catch. Although this is illegal, almost half of the aquarium fish imported from the Philippines are treated with cyanide. Together with Indonesia, the Philippines accounts for 86 percent of the fish species imported into America for use in public and private aquaria.

In the wild, yellow tangs have an average life span of 11 years. In captivity, most of them die before they are a year old. This is often due to the stress of transportation from their collection site to their new aquarium home. This shortened life span is a symptom of almost all marine species kept in captivity.

The Aquarium Debate: Yes

With that said, it seems undeniable that well-run, ethically minded aquaria can help positively impact marine conservation and education. Many divers, marine biologists and ocean conservationists will cite a childhood visit to an aquarium as the springboard that ignited their passion. I’ve witnessed this phenomenon firsthand, when I worked for a year at the SEA LIFE London Aquarium in England. There, I watched children enter the aquarium afraid of sharks and leave, some hours later, aware of the threats that face sharks, and determined to help with their conservation.

It is easy, as divers, to forget that most people will never experience the marine environment the way we do. They won’t have the opportunity to see creatures like sharks and rays in the wild. For them, a visit to an aquarium is the cheapest, easiest  — and sometimes the only — way to see marine animals. Senegalese conservationist Baba Dioum famously once said, “In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.”

Well-run aquaria

I believe that this is true, and that well-run aquaria can help create understanding that can ultimately inform conservation. Many aquariums actively promote education, particularly for younger visitors. Some even run their own conservation initiatives, or support ongoing efforts in their area. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) includes 229 accredited zoos and aquariums in eight countries. The organization spends approximately $160 million every year supporting conservation projects. A 2012 study carried out under the auspices of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) surveyed visitors to 30 international zoos and aquariums. It found that “both biodiversity understanding and knowledge of actions to help protect biodiversity in survey respondents increased during a visit to a zoo or aquarium.”

If managed correctly, aquaria are a great tool for raising awareness about marine health. Examples of environmentally conscious aquaria include the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town and Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. The former tags and releases its sand-tiger sharks every two years in order to gain valuable information that could help secure protective legislation for this species. The latter is responsible for the Seafood Watch initiative, which has distributed over 50 million consumer guides advocating sustainable seafood choices since 1999.

The Aquarium Debate Verdict?

The question of whether or not aquariums are acceptable will never have a single answer. The truth is that at some facilities, like Two Oceans and Monterey Bay, the positives may outweigh the negatives. In other cases, the educational benefit is simply not enough to justify unethical collection practices or the suffering captivity causes. It’s difficult for the layman to know the difference between good aquaria and bad aquaria. As a general rule, don’t visit aquaria that feature cetaceans or large pelagic species like whale sharks and manta rays.

Let these aquariums know that you won’t be visiting their facilities any time soon, due largely to their captivity of these species. Make an effort to research an aquarium before giving it your business or ethical support. Find out whether or not it’s involved in any meaningful conservation or education initiatives. If you aren’t sure, err on the side of caution and plan to do something else with your day instead.

The great aquarium debate has been ongoing for many years now, and often provokes strong feelings on either side. After reading the arguments both for and against the continued existence of aquariums, what do you think?