Ethics of Having Animals in Aquariums

Visitors at a marine park gaze into a whale exhibit.
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Over 4,000 years ago, the Sumerian, Egyptian, and Chinese started holding fish in ponds for breeding and ornamental purposes. By the 1700s, goldfish were being displayed in glass bowls. However, it wasn't until the 1850s that advances in science allowed public aquariums to achieve widespread popularity. Today, science helps us understand the ethical concerns of keeping animals in aquariums.

1 The Popularity of Aquariums is Rooted In Tradition

Evidence of goldfish kept for ornamental purposes dates back to the Chinese Sung Dynasty of 960 B.C.
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Ancient Egyptian and Chinese cultures considered certain species of fish sacred. Raising fish in ponds for food evolved into keeping the most revered and beautiful specimens for display. However, it wasn't until the 19th century that the English began studying what technology was required to keep fish alive in public aquariums. By the mid 20th century, advancements in water filtration and commercially available fish food made for a thriving hobby. Aquarium keeping developed into the lucrative industry that we see today-- not just for displaying fish, but also aquatic mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.

2 Public Aquariums and Marine Parks

Dolphinariums - aquariums housing dolphins - attract tourists.
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Marine parks and public aquariums are now popular tourist destinations in many countries. The aquarium industry promotes these facilities as serving numerous functions such as public education, animal rehabilitation, research, and entertainment. Animal rights proponents claim the motives of these facilities are profit-driven.

Such facilities populate their aquariums by importing species from the wild, participating in captive breeding programs, and rescuing injured or misplaced animals. Critics raise concern about the physical and emotional health of the animals, with research showing high mortality rates among wild-caught animals. For example, the Humane Society of the United States cites that "Various analytical approaches have demonstrated that the overall mortality rate of captive orcas is at least two and a half times as high as that of wild orcas."

3 Animals in Captivity

A species of cichlid fish displayed in a table top aquarium.
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Critics of aquariums argue that regardless of the size of the tank, the animals do not possess the same freedoms they would in the wild. Animal rights groups assert that marine animals such as whales and dolphins possess intelligence and decision making abilities, therefore they possess inherent individual rights.

Critics also claim that aquariums inhibit natural behavior such as mating, socializing, food foraging, escaping threats, finding mental stimulation, or living a full life span. The Humane Society of the United States reports that marine mammals in captivity are subject to stress "that can manifest in many ways, including weight loss, lack of appetite, anti-social behavior, reduced calving success, arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), stomach ulcers, changes in blood cell counts, increased susceptibility to diseases (reduced immune response), and even death."

4 Current Events Raise New Concerns

Burmese pythons populating the Florida Everglades are thought to originate from aquarium pets released into the wild during the 1990s.
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Animal attacks upon trainers at marine parks have been cause for investigations. In 1989, 2006 and 2010, whale attacks at SeaWorld locations in the United States received national media attention. Biologists in Florida are concerned about the rise of invasive Burmese pythons due to the release of these aquarium animals into the wild. Biologist J.D. Willson states that the pythons "should be able to eat nearly any native animal in South Florida", possibly even Florida panthers. These events further add to the growing ethical questions about the aquarium industry.

Brad Waters is a career-life coach and consultant. He has also been a writer for 15 years and is currently a panel expert at, where he writes the "Design Your Path" blog. Brad holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Master’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan.