The Environment

Sea Lies | Should We Be Visiting Aquariums In The UK?

Whales shouldn't be kept in captivity, but sharks and turtles can? Here's what is wrong with UK aquariums....

Illustration by Matt Ward

 “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated” – Mahatma Gandhi

Aquariums are beautiful places. Giant blue tanks filled with sharks, stingrays, turtles and technicolour shoals of fish. Crocodiles hide behind rocks. Deep sea fish flash with electrical currents in the darkness.

Everyone from toddlers to pensioners can appreciate the beauty of life under the sea. But do we really know what is going on behind the scenes of these aquariums?

In America, Sea World has faced major criticism in the past few years about its orca shows. This came after the release of the influential 2013 film Blackfish, which exposed the treatment of orcas in captivity. Attendance and revenue have declined since the release of the film.

It was a major breakthrough for animal activists, as it captured the attention of millions of people. People really began to talk about the issue and ask themselves whether they believed animals should be kept in captivity.

In the US, marine parks and aquariums are much bigger than we have here in the UK. Sea World is one such example. It features a large outdoor arena with daily whale shows. Georgia Aquarium has a 38,000 mtank (the largest in the western hemisphere) with four huge whale sharks inside.

Here in the UK, we have to ask ourselves – where do we stand when it comes to keeping aquatic animals in tanks?

Photo: iStock

In the UK, there are no whales or dolphins kept in captivity, thanks to strict legislation introduced in the 1990s. However many aquatic animals – large and small – still are, including sharks, turtles, rays and octopus.

25 million people visit zoos and aquariums in the UK every year, according to British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA). That’s a third of the population.

People love aquariums. They bring the public in contact with animals they would never normally encounter face-to-face. Aquariums pride themselves on educating others – especially children – and contributing to conservation projects. But does that really justify keeping thousands of wild animals in tanks?


The Captive Animals’ Protection Society have launched a campaign called Sea Lies against the major aquarium brand. Photo: CAPS

Sea Life is the largest aquarium brand in the UK – and the world. They have centres all over the country, including London, Birmingham and Manchester.

Sea Life is owned by Merlin Entertainments who also run tourist attractions around the UK such as Alton Towers, Thorpe Park and Madame Tussauds.

Unlike Sea World in America, Sea Life do not keep whales and dolphins on display. They state on their website that they too “believe it is wrong to keep whales and dolphins in captivity”.

However, it was discovered in 2014 that Sea Life owners Merlin Entertainments also own Changfeng Ocean World, an aquarium in Shanghai, which keeps three Beluga whales to perform in daily shows. There is no mention of this on the Sea Life website.

Campaigners from the Captive Animals Protection Society (CAPS) accused them of hypocrisy after they released footage of the whales – called Junjun, Uka 1 and Uka 2 – performing in shows in Shanghai back in March 2014.

Since this public revelation, Merlin have announced they are working with charity Whale & Dolphin Conservation to re-home these Beluga whales in a natural sea sanctuary.

This has been an ongoing issue for over two years now. Interestingly, in the interim, the whales are still performing three shows a day at the Changfeng Ocean World.

“If they truly meant to end the shows, they would make sure the animals weren’t performing every day. It’s a huge money spinner for them, which makes us question their sincerity,” says Liz Tyson, former director of CAPS.

This isn’t the first time Sea Life has been involved in projects outside the UK involving the captivity of dolphins and whales.

Back in 2012, Merlin came under fire after it was discovered the company owned two theme parks with dolphin shows, Gardaland in Italy and Heide Park in Germany.

They released a statement saying they were looking to create a dolphin sanctuary for the cetaceans, however these dolphins were eventually sold to zoos and aquariums around Europe. There are currently no updates on plans to build a sanctuary.


The issue of keeping orcas in captivity has been in the public eye for the past few years after groundbreaking film Blackfish was released. Photo: iStock

“There’s a huge focus on dolphins and whales in captivity, which is fantastic,” says Liz Tyson, “but it ignores the rest of the animals who are in aquariums.”

Sharks, turtles, octopus and many other aquatic animals are all kept in British aquariums.While zoos in general have moved away from capturing animals from the wild to fill their cages, aquariums aren’t the same.

79 per cent of animals held in public aquariums in the UK are thought to have been taken from the wild and put in tanks – contrary to people’s expectations.

“I don’t think the public know how many thousands of fish, octopus, sharks, all sorts of aquatic animals are being taken from the wild just so they can sit in a tank,” says Tyson.

Right now the majority of fish in Sea Life tanks are taken from the wild – including delicate habitats such as the Great Barrier Reef. Sea Life confirmed it would like 35 per cent of its animals to be captive bred by 2020.

I don’t think the public know how many thousands of fish, octopus, and sharks are being taken from the wild so they can sit in a tank

Plenty of these fish die on the long journey from Australia. An employee from Sea Life told CAPS that this was expected – the dead animals were “bagged up and binned” on arrival.

In 2007, three Blacktip sharks were being transported from Great Yarmouth centre to Hunstanton when they died en route. It was reported that the sharks died because the water was too cold – a mistake made by a Sea Life staff member.

“Taking animals from the wild is not only bad for the animals, it’s also bad for the environment,” says Kirsty Henderson, a spokesperson from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

Sea Life themselves remind people on signposts throughout their aquariums to never take anything away from coral reefs, yet every year they are removing thousands of fish from these ecosystems to put in tanks.


Blacktip reef sharks are just one of the types of shark kept in UK aquariums. Photo: iStock

Concerns about the animal welfare in public aquariums across the UK has been raised by CAPS and other charities.

While the Zoo Licensing Act requires all aquariums to have a formal welfare inspection every three years, a recent report in scientific journal Animals suggests most British zoos did not meet the minimum animal welfare standards – and there was no sign of improvement.

Animals in aquariums often show signs of “stereotypic” behaviour – abnormal repetitive actions that appear to have no obvious function – such as circling or excessive grooming, which never occur in the wild. Behaviour like this is so common among animals in captivity that it is called ‘zoochosis’ or psychosis caused by confinement.

Neglect is a major cause for concern among animal activists. First-hand accounts from ex-employees about animal neglect were collated by CAPS and published earlier this year.

A member of Sea Life staff came to them with a tale of Shore crabs in the Oban Sea Life centre who were infected with a dangerous parasite called Sacculina carcini. Concerns were ignored for weeks by the Animal Care team.

The shark had been repeatedly bumping into the sides of the tank, leaving its body covered in sores

The crabs eventually were seen as too sick to be on display and were killed by being placed in a box of toxic substance. It apparently took them 30 minutes to die.

In Birmingham, young hammerhead sharks were reportedly kept in tanks that were too small for them. As a result the shark had been repeatedly bumping into the rock work and sides of the tank, leaving its body covered in sores – and eventually died after a period of declining health.

Ex-employees remarked how they were “disgusted by the condition that the areas and tanks were kept in” in one Sea Life centre.

Another noted that clown fish and puffer fish were regularly put in the same tanks because “kids like to see all the fish from Finding Nemo together”. The puffer fish regularly eat the clown fish “so every week, the clown fish were just topped up to face a certain death”.

All members of staff are reportedly made to sign a confidentiality agreement when they join Sea Life. When asked, one manager said that this is because “unexpected deaths occur and situations arise which need to be kept behind closed doors”.

London Aquarium is one of the biggest Sea Life centres in the UK. Photo: iStock

Sea Life responded saying they did not recognise the events described by CAPS, suggesting that they were “completely false or just a gross distortion based on inaccurate hear-say”.

“It would be ridiculous to claim that mistakes are never made or accidents never happen,” says James Burleigh, Sea Life ambassador.

“We have extremely rigorous husbandry protocols but a single avoidable mortality is one too many. We welcome objective criticism and seek to make improvements wherever possible.”

“If these complaints are reported accurately then, of course, it is regrettable that any employee should feel it necessary to voice their concerns anonymously to a third party.”


Sea Life have their own independent charity called the Sea Life Trust. Photo: iStock

Despite protests from animal welfare charities, Sea Life say they raise a lot of support for wildlife conservation.

Last year, they raised £254,000 for conservation projects around the world as part of their Sea Life Marine Conservation Trust. This money came from donations from visitors, plus a percentage from Sea Life retail sales and a donation from Merlin Entertainments.

This year they’ve supported the Whale and Dolphin Conservation’s anti-whaling work, gave funding to the Shark Trust and Cyanide Free Seas, a research project that’s developing a test to figure out where cyanide has been used to catch fish.

However, animal activists argue this isn’t enough. “It’s a drop in the ocean compared to the amount of money they’ve got coming in,” says Tyson.

Last year, Merlin Entertainments made a profit of £249 million. “Sea Life are a business that hold thousands of animals captive – they spend millions keeping them in tanks – while scraping off the top to give to conservation charities.”

They also question the frequency of this campaigning and how much of this money was put into in situ conservation projects.


25 million people visit public aquariums in the UK every year. Photo: iStock

The big question most people will ask is about education. Are aquariums a valuable place for the general public to learn about aquatic life?

Sea Life and the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) would argue yes.

“Nothing can replace the experience of closeness with living animals. In order to want to protect the natural world we have to understand and care about what it is we’re being asked to protect,” states BIAZA on their website.

“Zoos and aquariums offer the opportunity for the general public to form a more personal connection with wildlife, and educational material can direct this emotional response towards a conservation goal.”

However, animal welfare activists believe that aquariums like Sea Life may give educational resource as one of their major benefits to the public, there are still a number of problems with this.

People don’t go to aquariums to be educated, they go to be entertained

“I don’t think people go to aquariums to be educated,” says Tyson. “They go to be entertained. People see fish almost like ornaments. You might learn some interesting facts, but we don’t believe that helps balance the thousands of animals held on each individual site.”

“We found a number of times either just staff making things up – some thing they were saying were incorrect, other times it just seemed deliberately misleading,” said Tyson.

Sea Life staff have been reported telling the public that either no animals were taken from the wild to stock Sea Life tanks or others admitted they were but “only on rare occasions”, according to a 2014 study by CAPS.

Similarly many of the animals that Sea Life claim to be endangered simply aren’t – only around 8.5 per cent of the species on display.

We could find very little information on how Sea Life staff are trained. Most of the presenters (those the public interact with) don’t have any marine biology training, according to CAPS.

As a result, there are concerns that the information being relayed to the public isn’t accurate – a claim which certainly jars with Sea Life’s ethos as a key educational tool for the general public.


Should we be visiting aquariums? It’s a question only you can decide the answer to.

In the greater scheme of things, keeping wildlife in captivity does not mean the entire species will die out. Climate change, whaling, ship strikes and entanglement in fishing lines all pose more of a threat to these creatures than captivity. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right to keep those that are in captivity suffering.

It has to be taken into account that there is a difference between aquariums and animal sanctuaries.

Sanctuaries take in and care for animals who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned and to keep them for life. Aquariums and zoos are created to display animals to the public. They buy and sell animals, breed and loan them from other organisations.

But it is admittedly a grey area. “Some places call themselves sanctuaries but aren’t necessarily,” says Kirsty Henderson from PETA.

The problem is aquariums are important to children – particularly those who live in poor inner city areas who would never get the chance to see these animals in their natural habitats. But as Tyson says, this is a problem we – the general public – have to weigh up.

Can we really justify keeping highly intelligent wild animals in tanks all their lives so we can learn a little more than we would seeing them on a wildlife documentary?

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