[How To] Build an ‘Ethical’ Aquarium

Is it ever OK to keep animals in captivity? Marine science historian and professor Samantha Muka offers four key considerations.

In the second half of the 20th century, U.S. aquariums shifted the way they sourced and cared for animals in response to criticism from animal rights groups and federal legislation like the Animal Welfare Act (1966), Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972) and Endangered Species Act (1973).

More recently, amplified by social media, documentaries and exposés have brought aquarium ethics to the forefront of the public consciousness, especially concerning the captivity of marine mammals.

Is it ever ethical to keep animals in captivity? “It’s a really thorny question,” says Samantha Muka, a marine science historian and assistant professor at Stevens’ School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. Here, she shares four important ethical considerations for modern aquariums.

1. Start With a Strong Mission.

“One of the most important considerations for an ethical aquarium is how it fits into the scientific and educational communities,” says Muka, who traces the importance of aquariums in her book, Oceans Under Glass: Tank Craft and the Science of the Sea (University of Chicago Press). Aquariums can help answer basic science questions, like how fish breed and what they need from their environment to survive. Information gathered about animals in captivity can be applied to conservation efforts in the wild. Aquariums also can educate the public meaningfully about environmental issues, making concepts like climate change feel more tangible and personal.

2. Exhibit Animals Close to Home.

While some colorful reef fish can be bred locally, most come from the IndoPacific. Removing these fish and other organisms disrupts the natural environment — and about 80% die during transport to aquariums, says Muka. Sourcing animals from local ecosystems has less impact on the environment and is safer for the animals. It also teaches the public to better understand and value the organisms near them.

3. Say No to Cetaceans.

Cetaceans like whales and dolphins are social animals that require companionship and space to thrive. While knowledge gained from the long-term captivity of some endangered cetaceans has resulted in successful breeding programs, most facilities do not have adequate space to house these animals. Some aquariums, like the New York Aquarium on Coney Island, are moving away from mammals entirely. “I think we will see more of this in the future,” predicts Muka.

4. Embrace Community Responsibility.

“Aquariums are an economic epicenter,” notes Muka. As public institutions, they have many functions in their communities: providing jobs, teaching skills, educating schoolchildren, forming research partnerships and drawing tourism. For example, the National Aquarium is the state of Maryland’s most-visited attraction and played a major role in the revitalization of Baltimore City’s Inner Harbor in the 1980s and 1990s, Muka explains. In addition, aquariums can be important advocates for local environments. After all, “how can you educate people to love the ocean but not know your own water quality or invest in the infrastructure of your city?” she asks.

Visiting an Aquarium?

Check to see if the institution is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to animal welfare, education and conservation. Smaller aquariums may not be able to afford certification. In these spaces, look for local species and a clear education or conservation-centric mission. A focus on exotic animals is a clue that the aquarium may not be on the up-and-up.

– Erin Lewis