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Is it justifiable to keep sharks in captivity?

There are few experiences more exhilarating than coming face to face with an apex predatory fish. We’re fascinated, in awe, and even in terror of them. What other way is there to ‘safely’ and affordably view these creatures?

More than likely yourself or someone you know has visited an aquarium, intent on viewing these magnificent spectacles of nature. Many of us don’t realise the magnitude of complications involved in capturing sharks from the wild, transportation, introduction into captivity, interspecific interaction, maintaining their health and dietary requirements and the possibility of releasing them back ex-situ. Is this justifiable for raising conservation awareness?

I have visited a number of aquaria over the last few years, and these issues are constantly on my mind. Am I paying entry towards an animal’s distress? Are they healthy and thriving? Is the tank big enough? However, these same aquariums establish themselves as a center for conservation and education – the same is known for zoos. Many aquaria work extensively with charities and organisations intent on the conservation of marine life.

The Deep Hull, England for example promotes “For Conservation, Not Profit”, and this is obvious throughout the aquarium. Profit is filtered into education, research and conservation. They work in conjunction with accredited bodies including WAZA (World Association of Zoos and Aquariums), Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, and Hull University. The Deep features a 2.5 million litre tank, home to an array of Elasmobranchs including two (of only six in Europe) Green Sawfish, Zebra Sharks, Whitetip Reef Sharks, Grey Reef Sharks and Nurse Sharks. The enclosure is clean, vibrant and well-maintained with a diverse array of marine life. Children are great fans of the sharks and loved to watch a large individual swam inches away from their faces. Young children make up the majority of visitors, and at such an inquisitive age they are curious, excited and enthusiastic to learn about them. The

Deep also regularly informs visitors of shark conservation, shark finning, and other threats.

The question remains, is it justifiable to keep sharks in captivity?

I believe sharks deserve to be respected and positively acknowledged for their role in balancing oceanic ecosystems. A large majority of the public can’t afford to view wild sharks and in turn rely on the media, which is a major concern for conservationists, especially when sharks are portrayed as maneaters. Aquariums offer close up and positive interactions with a number of species, all for a small donation.

There is no doubt that the process of captivity is stressful for sharks, some simply cannot survive in captivity. For example, in 2016 a juvenile White Shark died after three days of captivity at Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium in Japan. White Sharks are extremely difficult to keep captive, they’re a pelagic species meaning they travel extensive distances and survive by ram-ventilation. This species is one of the most misunderstood and mysterious, and visitors swarmed the aquarium to see the individual. In contrast, a majority of the public were outraged when the aquarium announced they were displaying the shark - it has been tried and tested without much success. Monterey Bay Aquarium is the only aquarium to have exhibited White Sharks for extended periods of time, although the animals still displayed distress and difficulty towards feeding. They however have successfully released White Sharks into the wild.

Sharks are intelligent animals which migrate great distances, have evolved as top predators with specialised senses we can’t possibly fathom for ourselves. I believe that a responsible aquarium or zoo will ensure that their animals are kept comfortable, enriched and maintained, with the best possible advice from marine biologists and specialists. Aquariums also benefit by using their exhibits as a platform for education, awareness and conservation. I’m lucky enough to be able to swim with sharks in their natural environment, however I know others aren’t as fortunate but are happy to be able to see sharks in a local aquarium.

People often anthropomorphise animals including sharks, yet the natural environment for these animals is under threat from human-induced actions, and aquariums have the ability to educate millions of people, including the next generation of conservationists. There is no denying that a magnitude of sharks is killed daily, with many species on the brink of extinction within the next decade. So I see captivity as a justifiable initiative in raising conservation awareness, which in turn helps to combat the finning trade, push towards stricter fishing management and alter misconceptions.

Thanks for reading,

Hannah (Bunny Shark)

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