Opinion commentary by Rob Laidlaw (May 31, 2023)
(scroll to bottom to see text of December 11, 2022 Facebook post about proposed aquarium)
As a young child I developed a fascination with wildlife of all kinds. At some point that I can’t remember I became particularly interested in fish and that led me keep fish in aquariums at home. I kept a wide variety of freshwater tropical fish, bought books about fish, attended fish shows and belonged to an aquarium society. I could walk into any pet store and identify pretty much every fish they were selling and I was up on the latest husbandry gear. I can’t really remember how many aquariums or how many fish I kept, but it was a good number.
Even though I was young, I did my research and I believed I was a diligent, responsible and informed fish keeper. But I remember one day looking at my fish and wondering what was going through their minds. What was their life really like? They were confined in glass boxes and they could swim from one end of their small space to the other but there wasn’t much else they could do. I thought that even tiny fish in the wild, like the neon tetras I kept, would live in a complex, environments orders of magnitude greater in size than they did in my aquariums. I came to believe their lives were rather purposeless and wasted because they were there just for my personal interest and amusement and I imagined they must be as miserable as fish could be.
Back then, no one had really studied the cognitive, emotional and social lives of fish in great detail, so they were generally thought of as being not particularly bright and driven largely by instinct. We now know that’s not the case, that fish are exceedingly complex, often very advanced, animals that share attributes common to mammals, birds and many other animals. Fish, it turns out, are not the animals they were thought to be.
With new knowledge and changing public attitudes, it should come as no surprise that public aquariums housing primarily fish (and invertebrates as well) have become far more talked about and controversial than in previous years. Today, while the political will to protect fish welfare isn’t there yet, it is increasingly a discussion item.
Just recently, an aquarium was proposed as part of a multi-billion development in Mont Royal, Quebec. When the aquarium part of the project was announced, members of the public spoke out against having an aquarium at all, calling it an out of date and inhumane idea, even if it only housed fish. The aquarium proponents have tried to assure everyone that their aquarium will be humane, sustainable, science-based and educational. It seems they recognize that even an aquarium with fish comes with some controversy and they are trying to mitigate those concerns up front.
While I don’t think aquarium opponents will accept what they’re saying, the mere fact that the welfare of fish and the appropriateness of a new aquarium is being discussed is a departure from 20 years ago when even initiating a discussion about fish welfare was a non-starter.
But, having said that, we are still only in the very beginning stages of discussion about fish welfare. It’s still a tough sell because most people don’t know very much about fish at all and there are so many recreational and commercial fishers who still see fish as a resource or commodity to be exploited. My hope is at least some of them will be open to rethinking how they think of and use fish and, perhaps most importantly, what the fish themselves are experiencing.
In recent years a great deal of information about the cognitive, social and emotional capacities of fish has emerged. This science shows that fish are far different than anyone ever imagined previously. But, so far, much of this information has remained buried in the scientific/academic literature with only bits and pieces creeping into more popular publications and media. But that is slowly changing.
One sign of that is the success of Jonathan Balcombe’s fabulous book What A Fish Knows, The Inner Lives of Our Underwater Cousins (2016) which has been published throughout the world. Drawing on the latest science, Balcombe demolishes the multitude of myths about how fish think and feel and shows that they plan, cooperate, solve problems, have rich social lives, form lifelong bonds, recognize each other, use tools, have complex forms of communication and much more. He talked about what he found while researching and writing What a Fish Knows at a Zoocheck talk. To watch the talk CLICK HERE.
Another book that has changed attitudes is Victoria Braithwaite’s do fish feel pain? (2010). This fabulous book methodically dismantles the erroneous idea (held by millions of recreational fishers) that fish don’t feel pain. In fact, they do and the science proving that is unequivocal.
Here in Canada and in many other parts of the world, public aquariums (meaning open to the public regardless of their ownership and/or governance model) are often promoted as modern, desirable attractions that generate jobs, increase tourist numbers and serve a useful education and conservation role.
I’ve visited public aquariums across Canada and throughout the world and, from what I’ve seen, like traditional zoos housing terrestrial animal species, they seem to be a bit of a mixed bag. They exist on a continuum that ranges from poor to good and many aquariums are a bit of both. But no matter where they are on that continuum, every single one of them should constantly be striving to improve, and those improvements should be informed by new science, our increased knowledge about the natural lives of fish in the wild, our new understanding of their advanced cognitive, emotional and social capacities and changing public perspectives.
A lot of newer aquariums these days are impressive, high technology centers (that bring with them high energy use and substantial carbon footprints). Most of them employ a multitude of facility and exhibit design “bells and whistles,” and unique features such as walk through acrylic tunnels, touch tanks and more, but many of those features appear to be more focused on enhancing the experience of visitors and not on the quality of the animals’ lives. While there have certainly been improvements in fish husbandry throughout the years, it’s clear that a lot of the changes in aquariums have been focused on creating an illusion of space and naturalness, to sanitize the view for the customers who visit. It’s very similar in traditional zoos that house land animals, but they use different design features like moats, strategically positioned vegetation and fake rock-work to sanitize the view for their spectators. That’s not to say that aquariums and zoos don’t give any consideration to the biological and behavioural needs of the animals, but it often seems the entertainment needs of visitors trump the needs of the animals.
We now know fish can experience physical and behavioural distress, discomfort, pain, injury and suffering that, in many respects, is similar to what is experienced by terrestrial animals held captive in traditional zoos. The causes may include lack of space, inability to engage in species-typical movements and behaviours, inappropriate social environments, lack of appropriate environmental conditions, unnatural diets and more.
There’s a lot to think about if fish are to kept in a way that is humane, and it could be that humane keeping is impossible for many fish, such as deep diving or wide ranging or excessively large species or for those that thrive best in very large congregations or those that have specialized diets that can’t be reasonably replicated in any captive setting. I can’t imagine any exhibit anywhere being suitable for giant whale sharks, pelagic fish like tuna, Ocean sunfish, deep-water fish and many other species.
Unbeknownst to most people is the fact that aquariums also still source large numbers of animals from the wild. This is a practice that is entirely accepted in the captivity industry for aquatic species, but is frowned upon (with some exceptions) when it comes to terrestrial species in traditional zoos. That doesn’t make sense.
Professional aquariums tend to say they make sure they hire contractors who collect fish (and other sea creatures) from the wild in sustainable and humane ways or, for the aquariums that collect their own fish, that they do so in a thoughtful, sustainable, humane fashion. But there’s a double standard at play here. What’s good for the goose should be good for the gander. Aquatic habitats and the creatures that inhabit them are typically under just as much threat as many terrestrial habitats and animal species. To me it seems nonsensical to say don’t take these land animals from the wild, but it’s okay to take these other aquatic animals from the wild.
No doubt aquariums would respond by talking about how important live fish and other aquatic animals are to their research, conservation and education activities. And they’ll present studies being conducted at their facilities or field projects they’re supporting or testimonials from visitors who say they learned a lot to prove their point. I’d be disingenuous if I were to claim that nothing aquariums did was good, but I think it’s reasonable to suggest that the investment in aquariums isn’t, at present, worth the research, education or conservation returns that result. You put in a lot and, in my view, you get very little in return.
Just a few years ago, the big debate with the aquarium and marine park industry in Canada was the keeping of highly mobile, wide ranging, deep diving, super intelligent, exceptionally social whales and dolphins in captivity. Our federal law here in Canada now prohibits these animals being kept (unless they were present prior to the law being passed), so there should now be a discussion about the other animal species kept in aquariums. I hope the industry itself will initiate these kinds of discussions. As the keepers of these animals, they should be the first to speak up on their behalf.
In the meantime, based on the evidence I will continue to view fish in aquariums as living diminished lives of little purpose. They may have some entertainment value and perhaps a small percentage of visitors can learn a little bit or maybe an aquarium conducts some interesting studies or they provide some material, technical or financial support for several field conservation initiatives, but the investment just isn’t worth the return.
In all my visits and the countless hours I’ve listened to aquarium visitors, it seems to me that few people leave with an understanding of how complex fish and other aquatic animals are, how they live in the wild, the scale and ferocity of the threats they face as individuals and species, the fact that many they viewed may have been removed from the wild for display, why stopping eating fish is one of the most important actions an individual can take to protect aquatic ecosystems throughout the world and, perhaps most importantly, why our perspectives about and our relationship to fish needs to radically change.
Do Montrealers really want another aquarium? The public is more sensitized to the needs of species held captive in man-made facilities
by Georges Dupras, westmountmag.ca, December 7, 2022
Montreal has had some disastrous experiences with dolphinariums and aquariums throughout the years. Does it really need another one? While some zoos and aquariums are moving toward a more science-based approach to what they do (and a few are even placing more focus on animal welfare), all too often captive wildlife facilities (and particularly aquariums) are viewed through an entirely economic lens as potential tourist attractions. That was a driver of new aquarium and city zoo construction back in the post World War II period through to the 1970s. Every town and city was engaged in post-war renewal and they all wanted them. That resulted in a lot of poor zoos and decades of animal suffering. Today, with changing public sensibilities about animals, new knowledge about how animals think and live, and worsening environmental problems, looking at aquariums through an entirely economic lens independent of other factors and the reality that aquariums (because of the technology involved in keeping aquatic creatures) bring with them a very high carbon footprint should be a thing of the past.