Vancouver Aquarium Uncovered and the anti-aquarium movement

by | Apr 13, 2016 | Conservation, Science | 0 comments

150917_729_79f34Recently, a Canadian court ruled that the documentary film, Vancouver Aquarium Uncovered would not be removed from the internet, and that the film’s only flaw, was using the aquarium’s copyrighted photos in the film. All told, the injunction awarded the Vancouver Aquarium amounts to 15 segments, a total of 5 minutes of the film, that must be removed. Many believe this is a win for public aquaria, showing that filmmakers often seek to frame facilities in a less than honorable light. However, when searching around online, it becomes clear that the Canadian court ruling, has done little to quell current public outrage at the fate of marine mammals in captivity. Also, when reading the public’s reaction to Vancouver Aquarium Uncovered it seems as the film served its intended purpose.


For private home aquarists, this may seem like another environmental movement, one that is aimed at large public aquaria, that houses large marine mammals, sharks and other animals unlikely to wind up in home tanks. However, it’s important to remember that not that long ago, public aquariums and even marine mammal parks like Sea World were praised for their educational value, and the quality of family entertainment they provided. Today, mention of Sea World is enough to start an online riot, or at least an explosive, ongoing thread. Is it possible that the general public, and eventually policy makers and legislators, are experiencing a shift in societies’ views on marine animals in captivity? Could energy now directed into ending captive marine mammals, soon be directed to ending marine aquaria in general?

The anti-aquarium movement:

Op-Reef-Defense-banner_721pxWithout a doubt, films The Cove and Blackfish, helped start the snowballing effect that is now the anti-aquarium movement. As aquarists, I think it’s important that we understand both that this movement encompasses a wide variety of aquaria, and also that it has merit. The Cove exposed the violence and brutality of Japan’s Taiji dolphin slaughter, while also showing that marine parks like Sea World use the slaughter as a place to acquire new livestock. Blackfish showed the consequence of keeping killer whales in captivity, exposing the ruthless process of separating orca calves from their mothers, and focusing on how captive stress literally drives these animals insane.

Both films sparked public outrage, and that rage, combined with the efforts of animal rights groups, has led to legislative changes and deteriorating public perception toward marine parks. In fact, Sea World has pointed out substantial losses since the Blackfish movement gained traction. Now, organizations like Sea Shepherd and the Humane Society have started campaigns to end the marine aquarium trade, citing a high percentage of fatality among collected fish. These groups also point out that home aquaria is really inadequate to properly house coral reef animals. Worldwide reef degradation only fuels the fire, with conservationists using the Endangered Species Act to push for legislation that protects marine aquarium fish in the wild.

While the goals of the marine mammal and aquarium movement may be different, the two are inter-related and directly connected to one another. Decreased public approval toward Sea World and other marine parks has directly led to a more negative public perception of marine/reef aquaria. It doesn’t take long, scouring the internet, to find people openly speaking out against the hobby, right along with marine parks. In fact, it may be a social sea change in how society views marine animals in captivity, and within the foreseeable future, it may be possible that housing marine animals in institutions or at home will be a thing of the past.

Though, like I said, the movement has merit. For decades it’s been recorded that killer whales (along with many other species) suffer severe mental and physical stress in captivity. This has led to violent outbreaks, where whale trainers have been killed. Some whales have become a danger to themselves and others. The documentary detailing Vancouver aquarium showed that the facility spent little on the captive habitat for their whales, or research, but poured loads of money into marketing, with the goal of increasing ticket sales. While Vancouver Aquarium has quit capturing beluga whales from the wild, it appears they still breed, trade, and assist with whale capture. A fact, according to the film, that was kept guarded from the aquarium’s board. Multiple public aquariums (including the Georgia Aquarium) still actively collect animals from the wild, a point that infuriates animal activists.

The argument has been made that public aquaria and marine parks provide little in terms of education, but a lot in terms of entertainment. This turns powerful and majestic creatures like killer whales into nothing but sideshow spectacles. However, the opposition argues that parks like Sea World have greatly contributed to our understanding of various species, while funding programs that help conserve wild populations. Both camps are filled with passionate people, all of whom have strong opinions and good points. As a lifelong aquarist, and a long time scuba diver, I find merits in both sides of the arguments. I believe (based on personal experience) that marine aquariums can inspire a passion to conserve the ocean, but I also believe that marine animals may be best left in their native habitat.

For me, the breaking point is how the marine fish I keep were collected. Was it done sustainably, was the natural reef ecosystem damaged in their capture? Are large percentages of wild collected fish dying before they ever reach an American fish shop? I know I can provide good care for my aquatic charges, once I have them, but there needs to be consumer data that speaks for the span of time from collection, on up to arriving at aquarists’ homes. This would greatly aid aquarists in making an informed decision about what fish they are ethically willing to keep, or if they want to continue on in the hobby, if collection practices are questionable.

Moving toward home tanks:

NEWS-SS-BOATSea Shepherd is a well-funded, powerful conservation group, helmed by celebrity environmentalist Captain Paul Watson. Sea Shepherd has achieved success at curbing Japanese whalers in the Southern Ocean, and the group has set their sights on other oceanic threats. One of those prominently featured in the group’s literature and advertising, is Operation Reef Defense. With this, Sea Shepherd seeks an end of the aquarium trade in Hawaii and beyond. Sea Shepherd vice president, and active anti-aquarium voice, Bob Witner, has aided the group in realizing these goals, while turning members of the general public against marine aquariums, and aquarists.

It may seem improbable that conservation groups, or even the general public, could pose a risk to our right to keep marine animals. However, we need only look at the recent ruling which protects the popular Bangaii cardinalfish under the Endangered Species Act. This was accomplished by one animal rights group (Wild Earth Guardians). If we look at laws that protect both animals and natural resources, often the tipping point is brought on by a change in public perception. This goes for rules that protect livestock, family pets, and wild places. For the first time I can remember, there is an organized, funded, and active movement, aimed at putting an end to the marine aquarium trade.

So is this movement in the right or the wrong, and are humble home aquarists (like myself) really to blame for aiding in the destruction of our oceans? The movement, at its very core, is right. In an age of diminishing natural resources, and the horror of climate change, standing up to protect oceanic species and their habitat is certainly noble. Scientists estimate a complete oceanic fisheries collapse in the next 50 years, and the end of coral reefs could come as soon as 2046. Even the experts are unsure what any of this means for the oceans as a whole, and the rapid loss of phytoplankton has serious implications for terrestrial mammals (people included) since they provide nearly 80% of the oxygen we breathe. The oceans need our help, and any industry that harvests from them to turn a profit has a moral and ethical (and often legal) responsibility to do so with care, and sustainability. For many years, the marine livestock trade has hung their hat, by saying that the impact of their trade was minuscule when compared to commercial fishing or resource mining. For years, that seemed to work and I can’t remember environmentalists targeting the livestock trade circa 1995.

Today, the marine and reef aquarium trade has grown into well over a billion dollar per year business. Millions of people worldwide have reef tanks in their home, and the global demand for livestock has increased, by a surprising margin. The excuse that home reef keeping’s impact is minuscule, simply won’t cut it any more. For whatever reason, the livestock trade seems data adverse, a fact journalist Ret Talbot and a handful of researchers have been chipping away at for a while. There isn’t a lot of import or collection data, and what exists is often relegated to archaic boxes of paperwork, without a streamlined management program. For a long time, very little import data existed, and marine fish species were quickly listed as MOF (marine ornamental fish) with no direction as to how individual species or locales were affected. Now that Indonesia is a CITES country, that has changed to a degree, but trade associations still report abuses and misdirection at the hands of collectors and exporters. Ret Talbot has consistently pointed out that much marine livestock comes from under regulated fisheries, with poor practices and data collection that falls behind the times. Since we don’t have a lot of data, conservationists are free to make lots of compelling assumptions. This was evident when National Geographic claimed 90% of all marine aquarium fish were collected via sodium cyanide. Are they right or wrong, well no one seems to know for sure.

Conservationists, along with environmental publications, can use this lack of data to their advantage. They can nurture a scenario that leads legislators to believe the aquarium livestock trade is very damaging to ecosystems and individual species. Also, they can make it appear that the trade’s worst practices, are in fact the majority. Again, without consistent and competent data, it’s hard to discredit them. It’s also hard to vigorously defend the industry, because you aren’t entirely sure what you’re defending.

Personal aquarists often hang their hat; on the level of complex care they offer their tank’s inhabitants. It’s a valid argument, and one that has merit, however if the fish they keep were initially collected with cyanide, or from a no-take conservation zone, or under any abusive practice, that care doesn’t really factor into curbing the overall problem. It also does nothing for the millions of people entering the hobby, without the slightest clue of the level of commitment, caring for marine animals requires.

umberger-gmaIf we are primarily offered fish illegally or unethically collected, it’s the marine livestock trade’s duty to improve that, and make sure species offered for sale are ethically collected. Again, without data, it’s anyone’s guess. We do know that the trade overall doesn’t seem to worry about data, until they come under fire. This occurred when clownfish were petitioned for ESA protection, and when various coral species were petitioned. The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) which is a lobbying group, used donations to hire scientists to offer detailed analysis. Their findings prevented clownfish from being given ESA protection, and lessened the number of corals listed. PIJAC received harsh criticism from conservationists and animal rights advocates, for protecting wildlife profiteers who had actually been illegally importing/exporting and selling various animals. Many conservationists and aquarium adverse citizens viewed PIJAC’s actions as simply an attempt to maintain a profitable industry, not an attempt to improve collection practices.

Should, and could the trade end?

Waikiki Aquarium-2Look at Seaworld, and think, 15 years ago did anyone believe a day would come where it would be illegal for Sea World to breed whales in the state of California? Not likely. Sea World was once praised for their commitment to conservation and education. Now, they are publicly considered a profiteering, animal abusing, entertainment enterprise; now directly regulated under law. As recently as 10 years ago, many in the general public saw reef aquariums as a unique way to bring the ocean into your home. Now there are internet forums and groups littered with angry, anti-aquarium protesters. The U.S. being a democracy, is often driven legislatively by the will of the majority. Typically, scientific findings show that an animal kept in captivity has a deep ability to feel and experience emotion and pain. Also, they find that captivity is stressful and dangerous for certain species. This leads to public outrage at continued captivity, which leads legislators to take action, based on the will of the public. While some conservationists are making the case that the reef aquarium hobby is damaging the environment, others are using scientific studies that suggest fish are emotionally complex, to make the case that they don’t belong in captivity. The industry is hit with accusations of both damaging the environment and keeping complex animals in captivity. I imagine it’s only an amount of time until an eco-documentary is done on the marine livestock trade, and that could create a public perception boiling point.

Given the lessons of history, the trade could end, or could be relegated to captive bred specimens of marine livestock. As for should the trade end, the aquarium livestock trade offers some positive impacts on the environment, and society as a whole. Conservationists would argue that these boil down to money, but evidence suggests something more. However, with so little data, it’s a hard case to make, and an even harder one to back up. Like everything else involving this conversation, no one really knows.

So Vancouver Uncovered wasn’t a win for aquariums:

HINN-Petco_Protest_2012Vancouver Aquarium Uncovered was a film attacking a public aquarium (and public aquariums as a whole), which takes wild marine mammals and places them in captivity. It was also an expose that strongly suggests public aquariums are profit-driven enterprises, which focus more on entertainment than education or conservation. It’s tied right in, with the rest of the aquarium debate, but doesn’t directly influence home reef aquariums. Many felt that the film maker’s being told to remove images, taken from the aquarium’s website, was proof that Canadian courts still see public aquariums as valid institutions, with defendable rights.

Vancouver aquarium initially wanted the film’s distribution ceased, and its complete removal from the internet. What they got was a re-editing of the film, to remove some images belonging to the aquarium. That’s hardly a win, as the film is still available, and can be viewed for free online. Following comments and threads discussing the film, it’s evident the movie had the intended impact, and created public outrage based on the accusations presented.

Overall, there is a body of scientists, researchers, activists and legislators all over the world that feel it’s time to end the existence of marine parks, and eventually wind down the existence of private reef aquariums, which house wild collected animals. On the flip side, a similar group exists believing that public aquariums and home reef tanks serve an important educational purpose. Who is right, who is wrong and where will this discussion be in 10 years? Your guess is as good as mine.


  • Jeremy Gosnell

    Jeremy Gosnell has been an aquarist for nearly all of his life. While studying sociology in college, he began writing for Freshwater and Marine Aquarium Magazine, moving over to Fish Channel and Aquarium Fish International in 2005. In 2008 he began composing feature articles for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and today serves as TFH's monthly saltwater Q&A writer, and is a member of the peer review content editorial board.After becoming a PADI certified dive master and specialty instructor, Jeremy trained with the Beautiful Oceans Academy as a science diver, specializing in coral reef biology, ecosystems and food chain hierarchies. He worked with Beautiful Oceans to promote scientific diving and underwater GPS coral reef mapping and bio-diversity studies for both scientific study and recreational dive charters.He holds various scuba related certifications including PADI master scuba diver, dive master, specialty instructor, DAN dive emergency specialist, marine wildlife injury specialist and several TECH REC technical certifications, including deep water diving, re-breather diving and cave diving.In his spare time Jeremy is a science fiction writer, and his debut novel Neptune's Garden was released in 2010. His second novel is being released later in 2015. Both books are oceanic in nature, exploring the existence of the mythical kingdom of Atlantis, from a scientific viewpoint.

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