[Coral-List] Whale sharks and public aquariums

Les Kaufman lesk at bu.edu
Mon Oct 13 11:39:18 EDT 2008

Dear friends,

It is hard to resist commenting on the whale shark thread.

As a nearly 30-year veteran of the aquarium/musuem industry and from  
1983 - 1994 \full time at New England Aquarium, for much of this time  
I've been one of the folks responsible for fielding discussions with  
those opposed to the existence of aquariums and the idea of having  
animals on public display.  Fortunately, as a scientist I have not  
had to tow an institutional line, though not doing so has put my job  
on a more precarious footing on occasion.

The issue bifurcates between the welfare of individual animals and  
the welfare of species and their ecosystems.  Putting PETA aside  
(much to their chagrin I am sure), aquariums and zoos have been in  
tight spots because of the apparent disconnect between a stated  
interest in conservation and the routine practice of incarcerating,  
captive-breeding, studying, and otherwise adoring wild animals in  
captivity without obvious connection to in-situ work to conserve them.

This has largely been rectified now, at least in North America,  
Australia, and a few other places.  Of course, individual  
institutions vary in where they are on the path toward  
enlightenment.  However, the most enlightened are doing this:

1) public programs that promote awareness of marine environments, a  
sense of stewardship for them, and knowledge of what individuals can  
do to help fulfill this stewardship responsibility.
2) external programs that lead or assist in marine conservation in  
the field, including conservation research, policy, activism- the  
full gamut.
3) taking full advantage of the need for a living collection  
(necessitated to fulfill objective (1)) by closely studying the life  
in captivity to apply this knowledge in objective (2).

A key assumption underlying this enterprise is that the public is  
largely disenfranchised from and ignorant of all that lies beneath  
70% of the earth's surface, that concern for this world requires that  
the gap be bridged, and that the best way of doing this is to bring  
people into close contact with living organisms to induce feelings of  
admiration, love, understanding, and concern.

It is also assumed that nature television and film, however  
wonderful, can not by itself bridge that gap.  Taking that many  
people physically into the ocean is not practical.  The best  
institutions meld live animal exhibitry and media into a motivating  
immersion experience that is superior to sitting before a big flat- 
screen watching groupers and corals produce clouds of pixilated  
gametes in a past where there were groupers and corals.

So the question is, are large animals like whale sharks necessary to  
this mission?  And what really is the contribution of large aquariums  
to marine conservation, given that their margins after operating  
costs are slim and even this is mostly not invested in conservation?

To have that debate, we first need consensus on the priorities,  
agenda, and realizable objectives and timeline for marine  
conservation globally.  Do we have that consensus?  Whether we do or  
not, there are basically two thrusts: preservation and harmonizing  
people with marine ecosystems.

Aquariums have contributed in a real way to both, at little total  
cost to the environment.  Off the cuff, take the Phoenix Islands  
Protected Area (major investment and drive from the New England  
Aquarium, under Greg Stone's leadership), and for harmonization the  
work of Bruce Carlson and Charles Delbeek's contributions to the  
captive-rearing of coral reef invertebrates, especially corals.   The  
coral work has made the entire field of coral conservation research  
possible, from molecular work, to the development of restoration  
strategies, to the understanding of coral reproduction and disease.   
And how do we estimate the potential for conservation represented by  
the legion of home aquarists who propagate and cherish live corals in  
reef aquariums?  It is enormous and it is not being  
harnessed....indeed, there are still perverse feedbacks through the  
live rock trade, for example.

Getting back to whale sharks, where is the convincing, unified  
strategy for whale shark conservation, and has it been decreed that  
public outreach about whale sharks is unimportant?  Has it been  
decided that the biological sacrifice of keeping captive a dozen  
whale sharks worldwide will do more harm than good for a broader  
cause?  In order to assess this, the cause itself must be rational  
and directed.  Otherwise there is no way to know if captive whale  
sharks hurt or help, and we are all just blowing off steam.

Of course it is true that exhibiting a whale shark can an aquarium's  
bottom line.  And the problem with that is......what exactly?   
Doesn't it depend upon whether that institution is really engaged in  
the global effort to conserve whale sharks, or the oceans generally,  
and if that engagement delivers manifold benefits that far outweigh  
the biological cost associated with the removal of a breeding  
individual from the whale shark population?  It is true that  
aquariums have boilerplate blah blah about how studying animals in  
captivity promotes marine conservation.   Sometimes- often- it is  
disingenuous or self-serving, wooly thinking at best.   Rather than  
challenge the underlying notion that aquariums can be a force for  
conservation, rather than reflexively condemning every case in which  
whale sharks have been held captive, why not just ask each  
institution for its plan to help change the world for the better?   
Assess that.  That would be good peer pressure.  Accountability is  
good, people should be thinking about what they are doing.



Les Kaufman
Professor of Biology
Associate Director
Boston University Marine Program
Senior PI
Marine Management Area Science
Conservation International

"There are man's activities that can be contributed to the issues
that we're dealing with now with these impacts. I'm not going to
blame all of man's activities on changes of climate."
-- Sarah Palin, on global warming

“I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.”
George W. Bush
Saginaw, Michigan; September 29, 2000

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