2nd November 2023

Con-servation efforts

Thousands upon thousands of animals are currently being held captive across UK aquariums; including fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals. Many aquariums claim their presence helps conservation efforts in the wild, but how true is this claim? 

The ocean and its wild inhabitants are suffering due to catastrophic climate change and other damaging human interferences such as poaching, commercial fishing and pollution, so what are aquariums actually doing to help animals survive these ongoing pressures? 

FFA Aquarium Report

In 2021, Freedom for Animals published a report entitled 'A Study of the Conservation Status of Species Held in British Aquariums', which showed that the conservation role of aquariums is overstated - the vast majority of species held captive in UK aquariums are not endangered in the wild.

Using the stocklists of 22 aquariums, FFA established that out of the 966 fish species currently held in aquariums across Great Britain, 92% of them are not classed to be a threatened species, and as such there is no conservational value in holding them captive. The reality is that aquariums exist for no other reason than for paying visitors to stare at and, subsequently, aquariums to make money from. Shockingly, only a miniscule 2% of fish species viewed as globally threatened are present, so how can these establishments be allowed to claim they are aiding global conservation efforts? The figures simply do not reflect their standard statements of protecting threatened species in the wild.

The annual stocklist is a report that must be produced and reported to the aquarium's local authority by April each year, to detail the records of species held there, including the species name, acquisition, birth, death (including culls), and departure (including sales and transfers). Yet in their investigations, FFA uncovered that a worryingly large number of deaths go unaccounted for, highlighting the disturbing situation many animals face in captivity in aqauriums. 

One aquarium left notes on their stocklist, logging animals who “may have died and decomposed out of sight or hiding”. The cases of six fewer shore crabs, who were noted to have been eaten by members of the same species due to aggression (possibly brought on by the limited and unnatural environment they were forced to endure), and a moon jellyfish who was described as most likely “dying and disintegrating in the water column” were mentioned. It is unacceptable that so many animals are being unaccounted for due to a lack of regard for their whereabouts or their health; and demonstrates that the industry views the animals as commodities who can be easily replaced, rather than the incredible individuals they truly are. 

Another large failing in regard to the stocklists, is the lack of clarity and transparency regarding the original location from which they were captured and then purchased. This is because they are not legally required to do so. The lack of governmental enforcement, stocklist management and in-situ data collection means that there is no trail to follow, to find out where each animal was taken from the wild, or the methods used to do so. 

Aquariums and the wild pet trade

It may be a shock to many, that the majority of fish found in aquariums are wild caught. So sensitive are they to external changes in their environment, the captive breeding of many species is not possible; with only 4% of saltwater species able to be bred in captivity successfully. So instead, wild individuals are plucked from their ocean homes and shipped across the world to be sold to aquariums, pet shops and hobbyists, where they will suffer a life of misery, illness and death from the stress.

There have been a number of external investigations into the catastrophic impact the exotic pet trade is having on marine ecosystems globally, with many findings uncovering that incredibly damaging fishing methods such as blast fishing and cyanide bombing are still commonplace, even though banned in the majority of countries. The trade is incredibly difficult to regulate, as it stretches from small-scale fishermen, local middlemen and leads to export warehouses and international trade hubs. In countries such as The Philippines and Indonesia, some fishermen are rejecting such intrusive and cruel methods by “hand-fishing” exotic marine fish with nets in a bid to scale back the destruction affecting fish numbers globally.

However, no matter how these animals are stolen from their ocean homes, the result is the same for them. If they survive the initial trauma of being shoved into plastic bags and sold to the fish stockists for international trading, they must then endure the perilously long journeys to fish stock markets in countries such as Australia, China, the United States and Europe.

The markets display and sell thousands of individuals to private hobbyists or buyers for the aquarium trade, and then ship them to the location of choice for display and imprisonment. Many fish do not survive the tortuous ordeal, and experts can only say “a large percentage” die before even making it to their captive destination. It is an horrendously cruel and vile industry, and one that aquariums - who claim to care for wild conservation efforts - should not have a part in.

If the animals survive the treacherous journey to the aquarium, the fight for survival continues still, as tank environments are a hostile place for animals raised in the wild. The right conditions are difficult to create and manage, and parasitic risks, alongside changes in temperature regulation and water quality, means that many fish die soon after being placed within them.

SEA LIFE does not value life

In the largest UK aquarium group, SEA LIFE, a previous BBC expose revealed that a third of animals died at their venues within a year, a total of 4500 individuals across 8 establishments. We know these figures are likely to be much higher, as the company is extremely secretive regarding their stock figures, particularly mortality rates, and actively hides the information from the public and concerned organisations, by only making their stocklist available to the local authority and DEFRA through a portal. This creates a severe lack of transparency, and subsequently, a lack of action. 

Many aquariums fail to highlight to the public the dark side of their “collections”, and the shady way the fish have come to be in their tanks. They, of course, do not want the public to know that they are endorsing and buying into a process that adds to the atrocities inflicted upon our beautiful oceans, rather than protecting them.

That they are doing the very opposite of the conservation they claim to be true, and funding one of the most damaging practices being waged on animals across the globe - the exotic ornamental fish and pet trade.

Not only is the trade significantly contributing to disastrous ecosystem collapse, and degrading coral reefs at an alarming rate; but the welfare implications and incredible cruelty that comes from stealing animals from their home to put on show in aquariums, is unacceptable, and must be stopped before it’s too late.

Fish are incredibly complex and social beings, who have the ability to suffer and experience pain and discomfort like all animals, therefore it comes as no surprise that a life of deprivation in a tiny tank often leads to psychological damage. Repetitive back-and-forth swimming, circling, head bobbing and other abnormal behaviours - all indicators of stress - have been observed in animals within 90% of UK aquariums.

So if you're contemplating a trip to the aquarium, please spare a moment to consider the suffering they cause to the thousands of individuals who must endure captivity there.

No animal should suffer in the name of entertainment.

How you can help:

  1. Read the report above to find out more and share with friends and family
  2. Take the pledge to not visit an aquarium! 
  3. Donate to help us expose the aquarium industry further and fight for the freedom of all animals

- 2nd November 2023