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Trapped in the Looking Glass

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Trapped in the Looking Glass

From People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)
February 2011

While I find that most people who really care about animals abhor keeping orcas and other marine mammals in captivity, it is a much more difficult conversation when I raise my opposition to keeping fish, crabs, and other animals in public aquariums. Why is that?

We know that fish are intelligent and that they can feel pain.

Given that fish are killed in massive numbers for food and sport, is it that people think that captivity (whether in a large public aquarium or in a smaller private aquarium) isn't that harmful? An exhaustive study of public aquariums in the U.K., entitled "Aquatic Zoos," should make it clear that sticking fish into glass bowls, no matter the bowl's size, is cruel and a threat to the survival of many species of beautiful and fascinating animals.

Zoologist Jordi Casamitjana conducted research on public aquariums, visiting 31 institutions to study animal care, public education, and conservation efforts. Casamitjana notes that the display industry is one of the more nasty sources of decline of free-living fish in our oceans and that it even threatens endangered species. He states that "over 95% of marine species for the aquarium trade are collected from the wild." And the display of marine animals in pubic aquariums encourages the growth of the hobby industry, which also primarily sells fish who were yanked out of their natural habitats.

This mad demand for captive fish, seahorses, octopuses, and other animals sends indigent fishers out to reefs armed with cyanide, which allows them stun and collect some fish while killing many other animals. Call it aquarium "bycatch," to use the flesh-industry term for birds, turtles, and other animals killed when commercial fisheries kill non-target species.

If the fish survive capture and transport (Casamitjana cites a study that found that 49 to 80 percent of fish died between the capture and export points in the country of origin and that another 10 percent of captured animals died during transport within the U.K.), many more-including 70 percent of reef fish in the U.K.-die within one year.

And what happens to those who suddenly find their natural home of currents and complex environments replaced by glass-enclosed filtered water? Casamitjana reports that 90 percent of U.K. aquariums have animals who exhibit stereotypical behavior, and hundreds of individual animals exhibiting these behaviors were identified. That estimate is probably low given that animals might exhibit the behavior before or after the short observation period. He found that fish were bobbing their heads, repeatedly swimming in circles that ignored the presence or lack of a boundary, or sticking their heads out of the water over and over again (surface break)-all behaviors that are recognized by scientists as being related to confinement. In other words, for human entertainment, the few survivors of the capture teams and industry transporters and retailers become insane inmates.

If the animal attempts to hide (not easy when every inch of the display is designed to meet the needs of the people who come to gawk at the animals), the aquarium staff have to match wits with their captives. A Seattle Aquarium staffer wrote that this was frequently the case with giant Pacific octopuses. "One particularly retiring female octopus that continually pulled this stunt was named 'Emily,' for Emily Dickinson, who was notoriously shy. I had a very difficult time keeping this animal out in the open. I used a bristly stick, bright lights, prickly sea stars, and Astroturf, all to no avail." What do we learn from this?

The growing industry that displays marine animals is quick to attempt to distance itself from hobbyists by claiming involvement in important education and conservation. Just as it is nonsense that Ringling's baby-elephant-beating center is involved in conservation, it is also false that public aquariums are playing a positive role in protecting fish and other endangered marine animals.

Casamitjana writes that the heavily decimated populations of sandbar sharks who face commercial fishing fleets in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico are also depleted by aquarium capture teams. He notes that a study of Hawaiian reefs published in 1998 concluded that a substantial decline in aquarium-targeted species is taking place. It specified that the decline at the time was 43 percent for yellow tangs, 54 percent for long-nose butterfly fish, 48 percent for Potter's angelfish, 63 percent for Achilles tangs, and 36 percent for Moorish idols. The authors blamed the decline mainly on the aquarium trade.

While PETA has called aquariums out for hypocrisy in serving fish flesh in their onsite cafés, Casamitjana notes that many aquariums even serve fish from "threatened" species, such as haddock.

Well, surely there is some educational benefit, right? No. Nothing has changed since I spoke to a conference of zookeepers some 20 years ago. People don't read signs at display facilities, they don't get involved in conservation groups as a result of going to zoos or aquariums, and Casamitjana found that 50 percent of the animals in aquariums he studied didn't even have signs that identified the species let alone what people could do to help their free relatives!

What's worse, more and more aquariums are becoming like circuses. Some now have shark-feeding shows that reinforce the "threat" that sharks pose to humans rather than the grave situation faced by shark species because of human activity. Still others have horrible "touching" displays that allow kids and adults to grab and torment crabs, rays, and other animals. Casamitjana found many starfish and crabs with their limbs torn off by visitors at these displays.

I believe that what aquariums really display is one of the worst examples of human arrogance and selfishness with regard to other species.