[Coral-List] Whale sharks and public aquariums
lesk at bu.edu
Mon Oct 13 11:39:18 EDT 2008
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
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.
Professor of Biology
Boston University Marine Program
Marine Management Area Science
"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
More information about the Coral-List