Sharks and Rays are Suffering in Captivity


Aside from marine mammals, stingrays and sharks are two of the most popular animals at aquariums and marine parks. Unfortunately, they also suffer at marine parks, just like the captive mammals.

Marine parks often sell the ferocity of sharks to their visitors, but experts say that these terrifying fishes are actually very fragile, and may be victims of the sub-par environment that they are provided in captivity. According to the professor of aquatic sciences at the University of Florida:

“Public aquariums often prefer sharks that exhibit a predatory appearance and display a fierce hunting behavior…Due to public demand and the “wow factor,” aquariums want to include rarer sharks, such as the great white shark, tiger shark, scalloped hammerhead shark, and whale shark, in their exhibits. However, many of these shark species do not adapt to captive life and maintaining them successfully involves tremendous expertise and financial investment.”

The sharks in tanks at marine parks around the world have been reported to have scoliosis, skin problems from poor water or sediment quality, and unhealthy or abnormal swim patterns and postures.

A shark's fins curl abnormally due to its small environment.

A shark’s fins curl abnormally due to its small environment.

Sharks are keen on detecting vibrations, scents, sounds, and even electrical currents in the water. The captive environment which is often surrounded by noisy tourists, may confuse these senses. Additionally, many sharks (such as whale sharks) experience a strong instinct to migrate or travel long distances. This need to travel cannot be met in captivity. In fact, many of the tanks are over crowded and excessively small which may lead to unnatural fin curling. As a result of these complications, captive sharks have often been seen displaying aggressive body language (fins down, back arched).

Attempts to keep some species of sharks in captivity have been altogether unsuccessful. Great white sharks are one such species:

“Not only was it extremely difficult to encourage them [great white sharks] to eat, but they seemed to be ultra sensitive to any slight imperfections in the tank which resulted in them becoming disoriented and sometimes inflicting damage on themselves by swimming and bumping into the enclosure walls.”Fox Shark Research Foundation

touch tank

Rays swim circles in a shallow, concrete touch tank at Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Note the blue paint chipping from the bottom, and lack of sand or natural elements.

Rays are close cousins to sharks and are one of the most popular animals to be found in bare, algae covered touch tanks. Unfortunately, these touch tanks are designed around the tourist’s convenience, NOT the animal’s comfort. Rays enjoy hiding in the sandy sea bottom, but in touch tanks, they are not usually allowed this simple right. In fact, they are not given room to escape the grasping, germ-ridden hands of tourists at all. As a result, many of them may be lifted out of the water, grabbed, or otherwise harmed. Like sharks, rays also have the ability to sense vibrations and electrical currents in the water. The splashing in touch tanks may be very bothersome to these animals who also suffer from skin problems and other captivity-related diseases.

Many protests and animal rights efforts focus on high-profile animals such as whales, dolphins, and pinnipeds. But it is important to remember that the well-being of sharks and stingrays is also severely compromised in a captive environment.

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6 thoughts on “Sharks and Rays are Suffering in Captivity

  1. Pingback: Sharks and Rays are Suffering in Captivity | Co...

  2. Honestly, if you can’t spell the word you’re trying to use to use to bolster your credibility (ichthyology), then I find it difficult to believe you have ever worked at a professional institution either, Paul. Further, it detracts from one’s ability to trust the veracity of your general statement.

    Her opinions are her opinions, but the general information presented (for example, the sensory capabilities, the range/need of movement, the difficulty of keeping certain species like great whites, etc) are accurate.

  3. You obviously have never worked at a professional institution and have no idea of how these animals are treated. I think you should gain some knowledge before you dabble into ichthiology, and stick with cetaceans, although I am sure you have no idea what you are talking about since you have printed completely false information here.

    • The majority of this information (and the photos) came from a marine biologist who has had experience working with sharks. I essentially wrote this post on her behalf. I also cite credible sources for everything else.

      • I then challenge him to name the institutions that you can see these conditions in. I also would challenge you to find more than one source for an article. Checking your sources are always a good thing. Also the “skin condition” that you proclaim is bad is pretty normal for a shark that sits all day. IF you had done your research you would see that these markings come and go as the animal becomes active and inactive. Also if you are going to state that the animals “arch their backs” frequently in captivity, you should probably not just site a website that tshows behavior in the wild and makes no mention of captivity. All the shark and ray touch pools that I have been at have on site vet staff, human grade food, a strict waterchange and cleaning schedule, etc. THese animals are watched over by educational staff as well. Again false accusations against an educational institution is a shame… since these animals are quickly disappearing for reasons unrelated tothe zoo and aquarium industry. Also have you even read one article about the success of captively breeding these animals? Hmmm maybe that should be in your article if you call yourself a journalist.

      • I would implore you to check your sources. People with extensive experiences with sharks would never print this information because it is blantently false and misleading. These animals are well cared for: human grade food, enrichment activities, vet care on site, and will live well past their life expectancy in the wild. The skin issues you have posted is normal of a shark that sits on the bottom during the day, by morning this is completely gone most of the time because the animal becomes more active. Its like someone sitting on a leather couch and getting red marks on your skin from sitting so long. Its normal behavior for this type of shark, and is not neglect or abuse. I would also like to comment that sharks frequently breed and give birth in captivity and is extremely important for research efforts especially with shark species that are quickly disappearing. I take issue with someone who does not know how to cite proper sources as well… in what source does it cite that sharks in captivity are frequently displaying aggressive behavior? I know this to be false. I have never seen this behavior in captivity once an animal has been acclimated to their surroundings. Again, check your sources, feel good blogging can do more harm than good for the animals that you seek to protect.

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