Stereotypic behaviours are abnormal, repetitive behaviours not normally seen in the wild which have been linked to stress and poor welfare. Freedom for Animals has previously shown that 90% of aquariums hold fish exhibiting stereotypical behaviours. Much like land animals held in zoos who have been shown to exhibit abnormal behaviours, widely known as ‘zoochosis’, sadly marine animals also suffer greatly in captive environments. In the same way as a tiger paces up and down in their cage, a fish ‘paces’ in their tank and exhibits signs of distress. In 2021, Freedom for Animals visited 7 aquariums in England, at every location animals were observed demonstrating stereotypic behaviour. 

Some examples of what our investigators saw: 

  • A long spined pufferfish was seen aimlessly circling for 2 minutes 40 seconds. The fish slowly swam in a tight circle, approximately one foot in diameter.A yellow pufferfish was observed repetitively swimming from the bottom to the top of their tank.
  • A common stingray was observed continuously swimming in a circle, approximately 10 metres in diameter. An off-duty staff member was overheard telling visitors that this ray often performs this abnormal behaviour.
  • A filefish was observed swimming from the bottom to the top of their tank over and over again, next to the glass. Prior to this, the fish was motionless for quite some time.
  • A smooth-hound was observed ‘spiraling’. They were so mentally distressed by their unnatural surroundings that they were driven mad. 

Surface Breaking Behaviour

The animal repetitively swims whilst continuously lifts their head out of the water


The animals spins around a central point


The animal paces back and forth


The animal follows a circular, repetitive path

Other stereotypic behaviours seen in fish in previous research by Freedom for Animals can be seen in our report, ‘Suffering Deep Down’. These include the following: 

  • Head bobbing and swinging - the animal remains stationary and repetitively moves their head from side to side or up and down
  • Interaction with transparent boundaries - continuously interacting with a transparent boundary attempting to walk or swim on to the glass, go through it or interact with reflections
  • Flashing - repeatedly rubbing one flank on the substrate or other surface

Read more about our welfare findings from investigations into aquariums HERE.  

Read our latest aquarium report HERE.