Do Aquariums Really Help With Conservation?
An aquarium visit can appear fun and informative. As you wander through the halls, marveling at the exquisite animals in each tank, it’s easy to forget that you are merely a spectator. Meanwhile, the marine animals you’re observing are trapped in their tiny spaces, doomed to swim in repetitive circles for their entire existence. While you can choose to leave the aquarium when you grow tired or bored, they have no such luxury.
In the wild, these animals roam far and wide. A Dolphin, for example, swims several miles every day. However, the Animal Welfare Act, which sets the standard for marine mammal tanks in the US, requires only that the tank of Bottlenose Dolphins be a minimum of 24x24x6.5 cubic ft.
The freedom of marine animals in the wild offers them a rich lifestyle full of environmental stimulation. Marine mammals like Whales and Dolphins, in particular, have very social lives, close knit families and cultural differences between groups of the same species. Instead, they are confined to an artificial, closed environment, alone or with unrelated members of their species. Experiencing stress from interaction with other animals in the tank and sheer boredom can cause zoochosis, a condition characterized by monotonous and obsessive behavior. They can and have experienced health problems, injury, and a reduced lifespan because of being unable to escape conflict or swim a distance that is even a fraction of their typical range.
But isn’t it important to keep these animals in captivity to prevent them from going extinct in the real-world?
Only a small percentage of the animals displayed in aquariums are classified as endangered. The loss of any species can have a negative cascading impact on the food chain and ecosystem. Therefore, it is important to preserve endangered species and increase their populations to a level where they can sustain themselves in the wild. However, reintroducing animals to their natural habitats after captivity is a major challenge. This is because animals may become genetically adapted to captivity, which can reduce their reproductive fitness and make them less suitable for reintroduction to the wild. They may lack the necessary skills and instincts to survive in their natural habitat. For example, a pet Rabbit may not be able to survive in the wild even though wild Rabbits know how to fend for themselves.
To be sure, there have been a few isolated attempts at reintroducing species back into the wild by aquariums. For example, the Lake Sturgeon by the Tennessee Aquarium. But compared to the number of species held captive, these instances are few.
In Seattle Aquariums’ history of 46 years, only one project was undertaken – to restore the Pinto Abalone, a type of mollusk found in the Pacific Northwestern waters. Now, it is participating in ReShark, a multi-organization plan to reintroduce Leopard Sharks back into the wild. They will donate the eggs of the Sharks being bred and displayed at the Ocean Pavilion after its construction in 2024, which, they claim, shall provide the necessary resources to do so. The construction of a gigantic facility and display of all those other animals is tough to justify when only one species is to be restored. The construction also takes taxpayer money that could be used to support marine conservation in much better ways or infrastructure, and therefore, several animal rights activists have protested this construction.
So, it’s possible to conclude that aquariums do very little in actually helping endangered species. And for that, they put a lot of other animals (an average mid-sized aquarium has 394 species) through unnecessary captivity, never to be released in the wild.
But at least the Fish are safe in the aquariums, right?
It’s tough to say when there are few laws in place to protect animals in aquariums.
On the federal level, the Animal Welfare Act covers the basic welfare requirements of warm blooded animals in aquariums, such as marine mammals and Penguins, but it does not apply to fish and invertebrates — the vast majority of animals in an aquarium.
The Endangered Species Act covers only endangered marine mammals, fish, and invertebrates in aquariums. It prohibits the harassment, harm, or killing of endangered species, and requires that aquariums provide appropriate care to ensure the animals’ health.
But don’t aquariums at least help conservation efforts by educating people about endangered species?
While aquariums claim to educate the public about conservation, they shy away from recommending visitors to cut down on consumption of seafood or switch to plant-based seafood even though overfishing causes depletion of Fish populations and discarded fishing gear constitutes half of the plastic pollution in the Pacific Garbage Patch. Aquariums like the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Georgia Aquarium encourage people to eat “sustainably-caught” Fish and even provide recipes! One would think that inculcating a love for Fishes and the desire to protect them would mean not encouraging people to eat any kind of aquatic life.
Another major reason for destruction of marine life is climate change, as aquariums rightfully inform us. Yet, how a typical visitor is supposed to help combat climate change is not usually explained. According to a UN report, adopting a plant-based diet is a major way an individual can help, and studies have shown that the meat and dairy industry is a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, aquariums ironically offer animal products to visitors. For example, Georgia Aquarium serves dead Cows, Chickens, and dairy cheese in its cafeteria.
Okay, so aquariums don’t provide specific recommendations. They still inspire people to protect marine life by showcasing biodiversity, don’t they?
I was eight when I read a book on marine life filled with photos and instantly fell in love with the fascinating sea life that inhabits the ocean. I had never visited an aquarium before. I was enthralled by the programs on Discovery Channel and National Geographic showing underwater life. People can watch documentaries, read photograph-rich books, and participate in sports like snorkeling and scuba-diving. Visiting and supporting marine sanctuaries can be encouraged. Aquariums are not necessary to inspire a love for aquatic life.
An often-cited study conducted by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums concluded that visitors to zoos and aquariums developed long-term positive attitudes towards conservation and their role in it. However, a deeper analysis of its methodology found several problems that make its conclusions questionable. For example, instead of objectively measuring the change in visitors’ attitude, the study relied on self-reports, which is influenced by the belief people have on how a visit can affect them. Furthermore, the sample of people surveyed included only people who voluntarily signed up for it, which may not be a representative of all the people who visit. Small gifts were handed out to participants of the study, which can have mild mood-elevating effects that bias the response. Their report also contains bold statements that are unsupported by the data collected.
There is no convincing justification for keeping animals in tanks; they are kept for pure entertainment at the cost of their entrapment. Aquariums may claim to protect and help conserve marine life, but the sad truth is that what they offer is nothing close to a real life for these magnificent animals.