We are encouraged to believe that aquariums act as almost sanctuary-like havens for marine life: I, for one, owe part of my affiliation toward marine environments to the experiences I had when I was younger - living in a coastal city, with one of the UK’s biggest aquariums being on my doorstep. Although as I grew up and my understanding developed, the aquarium rhetoric quickly changed; reiterating the necessity to scrutinise how each and every institution operates and for what purpose. These were regular considerations I had during my time at the aquarium.

In pursuing a career in marine conservation, I sought out opportunities to gain more relevant experience alongside my degree. This is when I secured a position as a “Trainee Aquarist”. The role was originally marketed as a combination of animal husbandry and welfare, with opportunities to engage in conservation and conservation awareness activities with the public. I quickly discovered that the latter was limited (if at all) to a few sentences in regurgitated speeches, muddied by the spectacle of daily feeds and the routine information that ensued. It didn’t take long to find out that the organisation had no involvement in breeding programmes with reintroduction plans, research or any influence on external conservation efforts. 

'Stock Management'

Interaction with the animals was largely “stock management”: a term widely used in the industry, one which immediately didn’t sit right with me when talking about the thousands of individuals held there. When considering the aquarium's parent company, Aspro Ocio; a for profit company that “owns 40 leisure attractions across Europe”, as stated on the aquarium website. It’s easy to see where this reductive terminology is derived from.

bans the tanks

The first hint of the animals being deemed as stock was evident during my first week; an aquarist listed what new species had recently been purchased. A statement that could initially be considered fairly innocuous, although it was said with a kind of enthusiasm to suggest they are no more than an ornamental commodity. Furthermore, the concept of these animals being sourced and bought specifically for this kind of institution felt inherently wrong. Firstly, because of the quality of life the animals are destined for, but also when considering such resources could be utilised to help endangered species.

Lives Thrown Out Like Rubbish

One moment that cemented the “stock” perspective, came fairly soon after my initial concerns: a colleague asked me to clean out the big-bellied seahorse tank, an approximately 1.5m², hollow cylinder that had a viewing point for children in the centre. When getting directions on how to syphon (remove any debris and dirt from the pebbled sediment), I noticed that many of the individuals were pregnant. I queried, with what was an already busy tank, what the plan for the seahorses’ young would be. 

I was told that a large proportion of the offspring would be surplus to requirements. Specifically, they would be scooped up in a net and thrown out as if they were rubbish. In the wild, the number of potential offspring could range between 300-700 per adult male; the aquarium had a clear lack of space and capacity to house and care for them. Yet, the aquarium touts a supposed captive breeding programme of big-bellied seahorses, which is marketed as “a plan to help ease the pressure on the wild populations”. I couldn’t help but think to myself that it was merely further “stock management”: Breeding these animals to ensure “stock security” (and a continuation of their exhibit) under the misnomer of “conservation”, before heartlessly discarding the individuals that were surplus and unwanted.

The Amazon Tank

The notion of overcrowding wasn't limited to the seahorse tank; the “Amazon” tank was a feature derived solely from “donations” of fish and turtle species from exotic pet owners and suppliers who underestimated the size the animals could grow to. The suppliers included local garden centres selling young stingray species, some of which would quickly grow to over a metre wide, resulting in those individuals being dumped at the doors of the aquarium - or worse.

At face-value, it was a noble addition to the aquarium and a huge part of me was extremely relieved to know these animals were rescued from potential death or poor conditions. But once again, the way in which the aquarium managed this exhibit left me feeling frustrated. With the tank holding 12 different species, all of whom could grow into (by the institution's own admission) sizeable individuals that needed a large amount of space, it was plain to see that the tank was already too densely populated. 

Before my arrival, the aquarium had already begun rejecting “donations” and started a campaign stating “Pet fish are for life, not until they outgrow their tank”. Whilst this was positive, so much more could be done leaving me feeling frustrated, once again. It was the perfect opportunity to highlight the devastation that the exotic pet trade has on individuals and species alike; a platform to educate, raise awareness and call for greater restrictions on the capture, breeding and sale of exotic animals. I couldn’t help but be left with a resounding feeling that the presence of the donation tank, despite what grave problems it caused the aquarium and the abandoned animals, was just another marketing ploy - another feature, driven by profit, to boast about.

An Exhibition for Profit

Amongst the institution, there seemed to be a lack of understanding of Aspro Ocio's unethical motives for subjecting the animals to this life, with some staff even repeating Aspro's “leisure” and profit driven mantra. Furthermore, there was no real push for conservation and conservation awareness initiatives, which is often the sole argument for the existence of aquariums.

My resultant, swift departure left me with thoughts for all the animals that were unable to do the same. The experience reinforced my beliefs that such organisations need far greater and more stringent governing, along with continuous assessment, in the hope that eventually all aquariums will be entirely phased out.

Read about our latest aquarium investigation HERE.