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Sea for Yourself: The Ethics of Aquariums

By Marike Lauwrens 3 years ago
The Ethics of Aquariums: Sea for Yourself

An aquarium: a tank filled with water in which marine creatures and plants are kept. Question is, how ethical is this place of ‘captivity’? Some people see no problem with aquariums, or zoos for that matter, and will rush to the nearest ‘fish bowl’ to admire our scaled friends from close-by. This ethical debate is as deep as the ocean itself; I have researched the matter and hope to provide you with some insightful pointers about the ethics of aquariums.

Ethical Extremes

If we take a group of people from different walks of life and put them in a room and pose a question about the ethics of aquariums, it can cause quite a heated discussion. Coming to think of it, I recall watching various movies and series over the last 20 odd years that sparked my thoughts and opinion on this matter. Each of these provides us with a different take on aquariums, ranging in ethical extremes:

Dolphin Tale,

• Nat Geo’s Fish Tank Kings,

• Animal Planet’s Tanked,


• And let’s not forget, an all-time personal favourite, the Free Willy trilogy.

1Photo: Dmitry Sumin/Flickr

Diving Dilemma

I remember going to my very first aquarium show at age six, I had a front row seat and the dolphins stole my heart! As the dolphins gracefully jumped out of the water I was blown away and was left with soaking clothes and a bag of smiles. Many aquariums showcase dolphins, penguins or seals to eager visitors. Entertaining nonetheless, and as much as I admire the skills of these creatures and the dedication of their trainers, how ethical is it to have animals on display for our entertainment and benefit?


Photo: Tambako The Jaguar/Flickr

“Using animals for entertainment is the bottom of the ethical totem pole” Gabriela Cowperthwaite, Director of Blackfish

Petting Prohibited

Many acclaimed marine biologists admit that their love of the ocean started many years ago when they first visited an aquarium. Aquariums can be a place of wonder and discovery and many people advocate its sole purpose as a source of marine research, rehabilitation, and education. Animal petting is very popular and we often abuse our position of power and the marine creatures get the raw deal while our needs and selfish desires are satisfied. Animal petting is not ethical and is not a practice one should support. Want to swim with a dolphin? Go to the ocean!


Photo: Josh Grenier/Flickr

Sea for Yourself

Like any other matter related to ethics, the ethics of aquariums is a subjective topic. What I see as ‘right’, ‘good’ and ‘acceptable’, might be a no-go game for you. Each aquarium is unique and its level of ethicality should be considered individually. As for the umbrella term, ‘aquarium’, a good measure of judgement is to ask yourself, does this aquarium:

• Support human entertainment in the form of dolphin, seal or penguin shows?

• Make a profit from aquarium ticket sales or shows?

• Support animal petting?

If you could answer yes to any one of the above questions, reconsider supporting an aquarium. The well-being of the marine creatures and ecosystems, not ‘touching a fish’, should be our first priority.


Photo: Clarissa de Wet/Flickr
Sadly, most aquariums operate as profit-based organisations to entertain humans and their ethicality can be questioned. Do yourself a favour and watch the film, Earthlingsto expand your view of animals and our role and responsibility towards them. If you’ve been fortunate enough to experience the thrill of seeing a shark, dolphin or turtle in nature, it is definitely less exciting and somewhat disheartening to watch them through thick, isolating glass. Help us to make contributions to vital marine conservation projects around the globe.
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