The Fish Bowl as a Crystal Ball: The Role of Zoo and Aquarium Professionals in Securing the Sustainable Future of Aquatic Display Species—for Animal Welfare, for Conservation and as a Sound Business Strategy
Unlike land-based zoologic collections, aquatic collections in zoos and aquariums are largely comprised of animals that are sourced from the wild. This practice employs and supports a trade in marine (and to a lesser extent, freshwater) species that relies upon an international array of individual fishers and fishing communities who supply primary and secondary buyers, wholesalers and retailers eventually providing animals to consumers (or end users). Home hobbyists are consumers, as are zoos and aquariums. The reliance upon this industry causes animal welfare, conservation, and sustainable business challenges.
With regard to conservation—the chief focus of most zoo and aquarium missions—we must consider that the world is facing environmental threats, the complexity of which we only begin to understand, and the consequences of which are monumental. In the aquatic realm, these issues are more extreme, largely due to what we do not yet know or understand well. The zoo and aquarium community’s reliance on wild caught animals contributes to numerous interrelated issues: for example, overexploitation of species, high mortality rates as animals move through the chain of custody, inequity among economic benefits realized by primary fishing community members and primary buyers (further fueling overexploitation), and inadvertent release of non-native species. Animal welfare issues include collection techniques, population pressures, habitat loss and degradation, care in transit, acclimation, and long-term care.
Zoo and aquarium professionals can positively influence this trade by supporting and sourcing animals through certification programs such as the Marine Aquarium Council (www.aquariumcouncil.org [VIN editor: Original link could not be accessed as of 1/7/21]), leveraging their education programs and their large public presence, community stature, and significant audiences, to provide education and promote action among constituents, supporting and advancing data collection systems, developing rigorous scientific programs that advance our understanding of these species and enhance or initiate ex situ breeding programs, and collaborating with partners whose expertise and focus can be utilized to ensure progress on all these fronts. Further, to not move aggressively towards decreasing the impact of these practices and our community’s reliance upon them is to employ a business model that is decidedly unsustainable. Zoos and aquariums exist largely to advance missions that compel us to support and demonstrate environmental stewardship—developing a model for future aquatic displays that is sustainable is the correct thing to do, both by our ethics and by our missions.