Aquaria and Marine Parks

Some of the world’s most sensitive and intelligent animals are kidnapped from their homes and forced to live in tiny enclosures that are a dismal imitation of their natural ocean environment, all at the hands of the multimillion-pound aquaria industry. Around the world, marine parks such as SeaWorld force orcas, dolphins and other cetaceans to perform crude tricks for entertainment, while in the UK, aquaria condemn millions of aquatic animals to lives of unrelenting misery.

Blackfish and SeaWorld

Two orcas at SeaWorldSeaWorld, which operates several marine parks in the US, have become notorious for their abuse of orcas. The company’s profits are built on the suffering of intelligent, social beings who are denied everything that is natural and important to them.

The orcas imprisoned by SeaWorld were either captured and taken from the wild as calves via a traumatic and violent process or bred in captivity from an increasingly narrow gene pool and usually separated from their mothers while still infants.

Wild orcas and dolphins live in large, complex social groups and swim vast distances every day in the open ocean. In captivity, these animals can swim only in circles in tanks that are the equivalent of bathtubs, and they are denied the opportunity to engage in almost any natural behaviour. Most die far short of their natural life spans and often endure distressing health conditions that increase their misery.

Orcas and other dolphins navigate by echolocation, but in pools, the reverberations from their own sonar bounce off the walls, which can drive them insane. World-renowned oceanographer Jean-Michel Cousteau has compared the imprisonment of orcas in tanks to keeping a jailed person blindfolded. Captive orcas suffer both physically and psychologically. Some captive orcas have destroyed their teeth by chewing on metal cage bars, and all captive adult male orcas have collapsed dorsal fins, a condition that rarely occurs in wild orcas.

The documentary Blackfish, released in 2013, highlights the disastrous consequences of captivity for these remarkable animals. The film tells the story of the male orca Tilikum and relates the severe psychological toll from being kept in concrete tanks for years on end, culminating in the tragic death of a trainer at SeaWorld Orlando.

Blackfish has opened thousands of people’s eyes to the plight of animals in marine parks, and the movement against these centres of cruelty has gained huge momentum. SeaWorld’s ticket sales have been dropping, and numerous celebrities and businesses continue to team up with PETA to speak out against the abuse and to sever all ties to the company.


Dolphins don't belong in captivityDolphins have distinct personalities, a strong sense of self and the ability to consider the future. Like all animals, these highly intelligent and social creatures suffer intensely when they are removed from the oceans, and they may suffer from stress, behavioural abnormalities, illness and premature death in captivity.

The notorious cruelty of the annual dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan, is subsidised by the animal entertainment industry, as fishers can sell live juvenile dolphins to marine parks for high prices.

Fortunately, governments around the world are recognising that dolphins, orcas and other cetaceans do not belong in tanks. Chile, Costa Rica and Croatia all have banned the keeping of cetaceans in captivity. In 2013, India’s then Ministry of Environment & Forests banned the keeping of captive dolphins for public entertainment. Other countries, including Brazil, Luxembourg, Nicaragua and Norway, have highly restrictive standards that make it nearly impossible to keep cetaceans in captivity. The last dolphinarium in the UK closed more than 20 years ago.

However, dolphins continue to suffer in other ways for entertainment. “Swim-with-dolphins” attractions, for example, usually keep animals in small pools or polluted sea pens and are often poorly regulated. Driven by greed, many facilities operate almost continuously, giving the animals little respite from a constant stream of tourists.

Aquaria in the UK

Fish in aquariumFrom giant octopuses to tiny jellyfish, the animals who are exploited by aquaria in Britain all suffer. Instead of navigating the vast oceans, marine animals at aquaria are confined to glass tanks – where they’re exposed to flashing lights, loud noises and crowds – and denied the opportunity to express their natural behaviour.

As with all businesses that make a profit from displaying animals, aquaria put commercial interests above animals’ needs. For example, shy fish – who, in the wild, would spend much of their time hiding in rock crevices or among seaweed to escape predators – are kept in barren tanks with no place to hide so that human visitors can get a better look at them. Investigations have also revealed that animals are forced to live with incompatible species (for example, diurnal and nocturnal fish are kept in the same tank) and kept in tanks that are far too small for them or that have no enrichment. Rays may be kept in shallow tanks that visitors can dip their hands into, while some “star attractions” are carted around the country every few months to different aquaria. Unsurprisingly, animals in aquaria often exhibit stereotypic behaviour, such as swimming in circles or repeatedly breaking the surface of the water.

Scientific studies have shown that fish are interesting, sentient beings who experience pain and fear, just as other animals do; have long memories and distinct personalities and often live in complex societies. Octopuses are so intelligent that they often are kept in extra-secure tanks because they’ve been known to attempt to escape by unscrewing water pipes. Yet octopuses, crustaceans and many other animals kept in aquaria are denied any protection under the Animal Welfare Act.

Conservation – Reading Between the Lies

Like zoos, aquaria and marine parks often try to convince the public that, by locking animals up in tanks or cages, they’re helping the animals rather than harming them.

But when it comes to marine conservation, in many cases aquaria are creating problems, rather than resolving them. Studies estimate that around 79 per cent  of animals in UK aquaria are wild-caught, often from coral reefs, which wreaks havoc on fragile ecosystems, or using destructive fishing techniques that are emptying the oceans. The global aquatic trade (which includes animals caught for home aquaria) is one of the major threats to many of the species on display.

After they’ve been caught, separated from their families and scooped out of the seas, the animals undergo a lengthy journey of thousands of miles – fraught with hazard and suffering – from their tropical homes to glass tanks in Europe, and tens of thousands of them die every year en route to those grim destinations.

What You Can Do

  • Keeping whales and dolphins captive doesn’t happen in the UK, but some British tourists still support this abusive industry by visiting parks such as SeaWorld while on holidays abroad. If you see a travel company advertising trips to SeaWorld or other marine parks, please write and ask them to follow in the footsteps of STA Travel, Virgin America and many others by ending all promotions of these cruel companies.
  • Please, never visit a marine park, an aquarium or any other tourist attraction which exploits animals to make money. Instead, learn about majestic and fascinating marine mammals by watching documentaries about how they live in their native habitat or go on a whale-watching trip and try to observe them in the wild.
  • If you haven’t already, watch Blackfish and encourage your friends to do the same.
  • Help keep fish in the oceans where they belong by refusing to eat them or to purchase them from pet shops.