Are Aquaria Good For Wildlife Conservation?

By Joe Cross. Big Blue Scuba School, Cheshire

For many years people have argued over whether aquariums and zoos still have a part to play in wildlife conservation. This argument has been highlighted in resent years with documentaries such as The Cove and Black Fish. In the UK all zoos and aquariums have to have a zoo licence to operate. This licence can be split into 3 key components outlining what an establishment has to do to obtain and keep one of these licences. They have to educate visitors, conserve wildlife and have a high standard of living for the animals living in the establishment.

Wildlife conservation

Zoo’s have made great progress when it comes to conservation of wild animals, although there has been a bias towards mammals as 50% of projects focus on this group whereas fish are largely unrepresented. It has also been found that most projects looking at conserving wild animals would not be financially viable without the financial support provided by zoo and aquaria. The problem comes when you think about the nature of these aquaria and zoo’s. As all of these establishments are business or charities they have their own brand image to push and have to look at their own success. It has been suggested by researchers looking into zoo and aquaria wildlife impact that due to the relatively small amounts of money invested into wildlife conservation they would have more impact if they calibrated together to work on these conservation projects.

As well as research undertaken in the wild aquaria also have to take animals from the wild in order to fill their tanks (it has been estimated that this could be up to 79% of animals in British aquaria). This includes species such as the Regal Tang famous for its appearance in Finding Nemo and Finding Dory. These movies inevitably raise interest in having these species as pets and demand increases. This wasn’t a problem with Finding Nemo as researchers have successfully managed to breed these species in captivity. Regal Tang on the other hand have not had much success in the way of captive breeding. Though aquaria did have campaigns saying don’t catch Dory in time for the release of the movie, the full impact of this campaign is not yet analysed as the movie is still unavailable at home and therefore the full data set is not yet collected.

Education

Aquaria are a hot spot for school trips, family day outs and marine enthusiasts but are their eduction efforts up to scratch and do people make meaningful changes to their lifestyle after visiting one of these establishments?  It has been well researched that in order to gain a visitors interest the exhibits must be engaging. Zoos and aquaria have worked on this by offering visitors a variety of resources to attract them such as touch pools (inverts only in the UK), smells, music, theming and information boards. All these tools are designed to leave lasting impressions on visitors in the hope that they enjoy what they see and also make an impression on how they see aquatic life going forward. Aquariums often also have shows where a member of the aquarium team has the opportunity to talk about the animals, educate people about the species and keep it interesting by feeding them. Sharks have for a long time struggled with an image problem which has been a contributing factor to their extreme fall in numbers for many years. During one of these talks you are likely to hear about the relatively low numbers of deaths that sharks are responsible for. This will only make a difference if the person that hears this information does something about it such as supporting shark eco tourism  or by donating to a charity that supports preventing threats against sharks. It won’t influence all the people who hear the talk but it will influence some.

However, it is often considered by certain environmentalists that people don’t go to aquaria to be educated they go to be entertained and they argue that the education is falling a deaf ears. As I said earlier you won’t change everyones opinions but hopefully you can change a few. The other problem is whether the information given at aquaria is accurate. In general the information given is not taken from peer reviewed journals and staff like to give there own spin on talks so the information can vary. However I would say that the information comes from a person who cares about the animals they work with and is unlikely to give you a negative impression of the animals.

So what is your opinion on aquaria? Comment below and let us know.

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