Since early last year, Freedom for Animals has worked alongside local groups to oppose plans to open a new Sea Life aquarium in the busy Trafford Shopping Centre in Greater Manchester. When plans were first mooted, Freedom for Animals requested meetings with representatives from the shopping centre and its parent company to discuss concerns. Contact with the parent company was simply ignored and the centre representatives refused the meeting request.

Planning permission for the ill-conceived aquarium was subsequently granted and the centre is reported to be due to open in the next month. Recently, a spokesperson for Sea Life made the following statement in press:

“At Sea Life we are passionate about preserving marine habitats and protecting the incredible species that live in them. Marine conservation is at the heart of everything we do – supporting projects across the world to inspire more people to care”.

But this statement rang somewhat hollow when, last week, Freedom for Animals received a long-overdue response to questions posed to a Sea Life senior manager during a meeting held in early March. The meeting was arranged at the request of Sea Life in order to speak through the concerns that Freedom for Animals had about the inappropriate, unethical and cruel plans to imprison thousands of aquatic animals to facilitate a new entertainment venue. In the letter inviting Freedom for Animals to attend the meeting, it was promised that the Sea Life representative “would be happy to discuss any specific questions Freedom for Animals may have”.

The questions posed by Freedom for Animals were as follows:

  • How many animals in Sea Life aquariums originate from the wild?
  • In monetary terms, how much of Sea Life’s income is spent on in situ conservation projects (both as a percentage and as a figure)?
  • What are the mortality rates of animals at Sea Life aquariums?
  • Does Sea Life cull animals?

During the meeting, none of these questions were answered in full.

It was agreed that outstanding points should be put in writing and Sea Life would endeavour to “provide full and transparent answers to the various questions asked”. After over two months waiting for those answers, a response was finally received; a four page letter which, once again, failed to give straight answers to the list of simple questions.

Despite the apparent reluctance to answer Freedom for Animals’ concerns directly, a number of conclusions can be drawn from the letter:

Sea Life DO take animals from the wild, but they don’t want us to know how many

It was confirmed that animals are taken from the wild to stock Sea Life aquariums but no figure was put on how many, or what percentage, of the animals held in the aquariums have been taken from their wild homes to spend their lives in tanks. The 2004  Freedom for Animals study of UK public aquariums found that a massive 79% of animals in the aquariums studied were wild-caught.

Less than 3 pence per visitor can be traced directly to in situ conservation projects

Little attempt was made to provide an answer to the specific question on monetary contribution to in situ conservation (conservation of species within their natural habitat) and, instead, the letter listed a number of unrelated activities carried out by the zoo chain and a number of future projects not yet initiated. The only concrete evidence of monetary support for an in situ project was confirmation that £250,000 was spent on support for a turtle sanctuary in Greece.  On the surface, £250,000 may seem like a lot of money but this represents just 0.02% of parent company Merlin’s 2012 revenue, which was a massive £1,074,000,000 in 2012.

According to Sea Life partners, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Sea Life centres attract over 10 million visitors per year. When extrapolated to vistors to Sea Life centres alone, this equates to less than three pence per person being traced directly to support for in situ conservation efforts. The entrance for a family of four to Sea Life’s London Aquarium is £64.26.

It is not company policy to disclose how many animals die in Sea Life centres

A major concern for those who oppose the keeping of animals in public aquariums is that mortality rates (deaths of animals) are poorly monitored and may be unacceptably high. It stands to reason that public aquariums would be keen to provide data which debunks these concerns but the letter confirmed simply that: “it is not our policy to release site by site data on any operational level”. This was followed by a detailed explanation of how animal health is monitored and confirmed that Sea Life is not concerned about mortality rates in its centres. Of course, without data then this information remains unsubstantiated.

Culling of animals not ruled out

The question on culling was addressed by including a copy of Sea Life’s “Euthanasia Policy”, which confirmed that euthanasia due to “surplus to requirements” or “too large to house” must be discussed at the ethics review before being carried out. Tellingly, culling animals for these purposes are not ruled out.

Said Freedom for Animals Campaigns Director, Nicola O'Brien:

“I was pleasantly surprised when we were contacted by Sea Life as, despite our opposition to their captive animal businesses, it seemed that the company was willing to engage in some frank and open discussion. It was disappointing to receive the letter last week which, after a delay of two months, we had hoped would give us clear answers to our questions. Sadly, it wasn’t meant to be and the answers given do little more than promote the business’ key PR messages, whilst pointedly avoiding the specifics of the legitimate concerns we had raised with them.

“Most public statements by representatives from zoos and aquarium businesses include claims of “conservation impact” and “high welfare standards”, but when you scratch beneath the surface, these claims very often do not appear to stand up to scrutiny. We continue to encourage our supporters to boycott attractions that hold animals captive for entertainment and, if they are concerned with the conservation of species, to support those projects that are working effectively to protect animals in their natural habitat”.

Freedom for Animals and local campaign group, Manchester Animal Action, have vowed to continue to campaign against the new business, and on the wider issues surrounding the UK aquarium industry.

Animals in aquariums are often overlooked in the wider zoo debate. Please support us in speaking out for aquatic animals by donating to Freedom for Animals today. We can’t do it without you.