At the beginning of last week, Japanese aquarium Okinawa Churaumi announced the addition of an 11.5-foot (3.5 m) great white shark to its collection, sparking concern for the animal’s wellbeing among international conservation groups. Unfortunately, these concerns were well-founded when the adult male shark died just three days after its capture.
According to Japanese media, the great white shark was taken to the aquarium after becoming entangled in a fishing net off the village of Yomitan in Okinawa prefecture. During its brief residency at Okinawa Churaumi, the shark appeared to have difficulty adjusting to the confines of its new home, colliding repeatedly with the walls of its aquarium. It also refused food of any kind, and although aquarium spokespeople claimed that the shark was adjusting to life in the tank, it was removed on the third day after sinking helplessly to the bottom. Aquarists attempted to revive the shark in a separate tank to no avail.
Shortly thereafter, Okinawa Churaumi announced ‘the termination” of their brief and much-boasted-about great white shark exhibition. Investigations into the cause of the shark’s death are allegedly being carried out at the aquarium, although PETA Vice President of International Campaigns Jason Baker has his own opinions on the tragedy. According to Baker, “the cause of death is clear: captivity. The shark never had to die like this.” He also condemned the decision to display the shark in the first place as “cruel and wrong,” a sentiment echoed by several other prominent marine conservation and animal welfare organizations.
The great white shark is unsuited to captivity
Great whites are notoriously unsuited to captivity, a fact proven by the failure of every aquarium that has tried to keep one alive for any extended period of time. The only aquarium to have experienced some limited success with great-white husbandry is California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium. As part of its Project White Shark conservation and research initiative, Monterey Bay has hosted a total of six great whites at its facility for various time periods, ranging from 11 days to 6 ½ months. Five of these were returned successfully to the wild, but the project was put on hold in 2011 after the most recent shark died during its release.
The Monterey Bay great whites all exhibited difficulties in adjusting to captivity, the severity of which determined how quickly they were released back into the wild. Some, like the Okinawa Churaumi great white, simply refused to eat, while others demonstrated navigation problems that rendered them unable to swim around the tank without sustaining abrasion injuries. Unlike most shark species considered suitable for captivity, great whites are pelagic, meaning that in the wild, they are capable of swimming many hundreds of miles in a matter of days. Their inability to do so in captivity inevitably leads to considerable mental and physical stress.
In addition, white sharks are ram ventilators, which means that they must swim continuously in order to breathe. Most larger shark species kept in aquaria, including sand-tiger sharks and nurse sharks, can buccal pump, or force water over their gills while at rest. The most successful aquarium sharks include species like the epaulette and Port Jackson sharks, small sharks that spend the majority of their time motionless on the sea floor in the wild. As the ocean’s most famous apex predator, great whites are hunters, which is entirely at odds with the standard aquarium practice of providing food that is already dead.
Because they are so unsuited to it captivity, the likelihood of keeping a great white shark alive in this manner for any extended period of time is minute and, therefore, attempting to do so may be considered ethically wrong. Monterey Bay’s short-term great white exhibits, while still controversial, were at least aimed at furthering scientific understanding of great whites while encouraging the general public to become more invested in their conservation. By the time the last shark was released in 2011, the associated Project White Shark had already contributed almost $2 million towards shark conservation.
By comparison, Okinawa Churaumi’s attempt at great-white husbandry seems to have been inspired by profit, rather than protection. The shark was displayed in an exhibit called “Sea of Dangerous Sharks” — a title that reinforces the enduring media perception of great whites as ruthless killers while doing little to promote understanding or empathy. The aquarium is also home to several other controversial species, including whale sharks, manta rays and dolphins.