Sunday, November 17, 2013

Something Fishy Going On, Impressions of My Aquarium Visit

Question: Why would you take a wild, innocent animal and stick it in prison?

Variation: Is it justifiable to imprison a wild, innocent animal for entertainment or to make money?

Those questions are too general to answer properly, but let me try: To question one I’d say when it is in the better interest of the animal or when it is in the better interest of the species to which the animal belongs, and maybe, just maybe, when it helps educate people to better care for the either individual animals or species entire species, the latter consideration captured by the term, “conservation”, it is justifiable to confine wild animals. The zoo and aquarium industry tries to convince us that they contain animals in captivity not just to profit and to amuse us, but to educate us and to conserve species.

To the second question I’d personally answer “no”, while recognizing many people would answer “yes”. Both answers reflect value judgements.

Toronto recently opened Ripley’s Aquarium, in which some 16,000 animals live in some 5.7 million litres of carefully maintained, very clean water. Presumably it will make money and will amuse and entertain visitors. But does it educate? Does it provide conservation?

A visit to the website ( provides no clue, although we are assured that it is “dedicated to developing and supporting unique initiatives that promote environmental awareness and aquatic ecosystem literacy” and its “team aims to foster a culture of sustainability that supports the environmental protection and conservation goals of the organization and the greater public, while building a strong legacy of ecological stewardship.”

I couldn’t tell what those environmental protection and conservation goals might be, but those of the greater public have, to date, resulted in the greatest extinction spasm in some 65,000,000 years with the loss of the over 90 percent of the large, predatory fish essential to the well-being of fish stocks overall. ( I think Ripley’s might want to aim higher, and maybe a good place to start would be with convincing people to not indulge in practices inimical to the welfare of fish species.

An aquarium representative told me that being new, they are “still solidifying our conservation and sustainability programs before we roll them out completely and develop displays for them,” and some “species status and conservation signage & videos” are in place. There will be partnerships with the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto Region Conservation Authority, Water Brothers (I had to look that one up; it appears to be an “eco-adventure” TV show) and the Vancouver Aquarium, adding, “all our curriculum-linked educational programs incorporate a conservation message and call to action.” I don’t recall any such call to action during my visit.

There is no doubt that a person equipped with pen and paper, a recording device or total recall could, upon touring the aquarium, come back with a wealth of factoids that might qualify as “education”, many of the “gosh-wow” nature of the old Ripley’s “Believe it or Not” feature most folks are too young to remember. But I’d wager that few of the visitors could, upon exiting, give the English name of even a dozen species of fish they saw…at most maybe generic or family names, like shark, ray, bass or trout. However, I think visitors, especially kids, might agree that they got value for their entertainment dollar.

I remember one section mentioning how the first Europeans to fish the waters off eastern Canada could dip a container overboard and pull it up filled with fish. That’s about the only suggestion that aquatic species face anything that could be called a conservation concern I recall, beyond stickers put besides the names of species that are threatened and, I think, a reference to shark finning. I saw some videos but irritatingly unpleasant “music” piped through the entire facility drowned out commentary, if there was any.

I saw very few people read the educational material provided, and most spent little time viewing the various displays or looking at the names and connecting them to the fish. While I saw a lot of fake coral, I came away not recalling any references to the various threats, from siltation to climate change to crown-of-thorns starfish, threatening the world’s coral reefs or an explanation of why it matters; I recall one exhibit featuring fake mangrove roots, but no mention of how the destruction of mangroves is affecting the foundation of ocean food chains; I recollect no reference to the above-mentioned decline in large predatory fish; I recall no mention of the threats posed by the ubiquitous aquarium trade, and how poisons and explosives are sometimes used to acquire fish for home aquariums; I recall no mention of the disruption of essential migratory movement by dams across rivers; I recall no mention of how deforestation is affecting salmon survival in breeding rivers; I recall no concerns about fish farms or genetically altered fish, nor exotic introduced species; I remembered no mention of how so-called traditional oriental medicine and food is threatening seahorses and other fish and other marine species; I recall no mention of how ocean-side tourism development is destroying sea turtle habitat. I recall nothing being mentioned about the threat of plastics and other marine debris to both fresh water and sea life, nor reference to cut-away drift nets, abandoned crab and lobster traps and the destruction of dolphins, sea turtles and other species as unwanted discards of commercial fishing. I recall no concerns about the decline of the queen conch, the humpback wrasse, the Patagonian toothfish, the Chinese paddlefish or so many other marine species in decline worldwide.

I recall no indication of just how diverse speciation is: that there are, for example, hundreds of species of sharks, or nearly two hundred known congers or over two hundred and fifty sculpins, or so many thousands of fish species about which little or nothing is known. I saw no mention of deep sea marine life, below the level reached by light, and the subsequent use of bioluminescence. And while there were beautiful displays of jellyfish and a few invertebrates, a visitor gets no real hint of just how vast and diverse marine life is, from bryozoans to belugas (whales or sturgeon).

And that’s because aquariums are not really educational. They can’t be; it’s not their function. And while they, like any individual or organization, can contribute to conservation, they do not inherently do so. There is no need to breed fish and release them in order to prevent extinction, any more than there is a need to do that for polar bears, and yet the zoo and aquarium industry wants us to think otherwise.

Last stop upon exiting the aquarium is the gift shop, of course, sort of a filter designed to remove a bit more cash from your wallet. But all it offered was glitzy toys, key chains, bracelets, stuffed toys and cheap bric-a-brac designed for pre-teen tastes, with lots of sequins and sparkly bits. It was mostly fish-themed, yes, including the book section, but sadly nothing to interest an adult or teen with an interest in ichthyology, oceanography, marine biology or sea life conservation. I hope they look at the gift shop and book selection offered by places like the Monterey Aquarium or Smithsonian Institute, where those of us interested in such things can find worthwhile purchases.

I came away thinking claims to be educational or important to conservation were, at best, weakly supported. The aquarium could become a player in real, effective conservation efforts, like promoting protection for certain over-exploited commercial fish stocks. Meanwhile, it strikes me as being more a part of the problem of human hubris – the belief and actions that derive therefrom – that the world beyond our own exists for us, to amuse, entertain or be exploited by us for commercial gain. It may have been an attitude without negative consequences through most of our evolutionary history, but now works against our own ultimate survival and against the interests of all the vast majority of other creatures out there, suffering from our exploitation, ignorance and indifference.

I’m grateful there are no marine mammals or birds in the facility, it’s a start, but for now it is entertainment detached from anything that fairly could be called either conservation or education.

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA
Zoocheck Inc.