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.”
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
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.