Updated: Aug 9, 2022
This is not the blog I was planning on writing for this week. I wanted to continue to chat about opportunities within marine biology. However, after receiving texts from friends/family and reading comments on Facebook I felt the need to share my thoughts on sharks in captivity and the Georgia Aquarium’s new shark exhibit.
I have been to the Georgia Aquarium before and I can say that I really enjoyed my visit there. Since that visit I spent years in college and working with sharks and now have changed my opinion on captivity. I don’t think all aquaria are awful but I do have some issues with the concept of captivity. I am not in support of the new gallery at the Georgia Aquarium.
Holding sharks in captivity at zoo and aquaria is nothing new. Facilities around the world have been keeping captive sharks since before the 1950s. (Essapian, 1962). However, up until more recent years and the development of newer technologies it was very difficult to keep these species alive for transport and homing in an aquarium setting.
The Georgia Aquarium
Whale Sharks have been one of the Georgia Aquarium’s most popular attractions since they opened in 2005. (georgiaaquarium.org). And in the “Ocean Voyager” exhibit where the whale sharks are housed you can also find sandbar sharks, blacktip reef sharks, guitarfish, sawfish, a variety of rays, and mantas.
The Georgia Aquarium just announced the opening of their new gallery “Sharks! Predators of the Deep”. The tanks hold great hammerheads, silky sharks, silvertip sharks, sand tiger sharks, and tiger sharks. There is also a shark interaction offered which does not explicitly state the species but based on photos appears to include zebra sharks and some rays. The aquarium is promoting the exhibit with “turn your fear into fascination”. They claim that they will share information on the threats facing sharks and their importance in the ocean. Which all sounds great! Except when you click on each species to “learn more” almost all are described as “aggressive”. So I’m not sure how well that is changing people’s fears.
Since the introduction of the whale sharks in 2005, two have died in 2007. (Atlanta News Now). I have a source (used to work at the aquarium but not sure how credible) that stated the sharks being put in the new exhibit were fished from Florida waters. I have reached out to the aquarium to question them and have yet to hear back. The blog will be updated once I do.
My Thoughts on Shark Captivity
If you’ve read my previous post on keeping cetaceans in captivity you would know I am not completely anti-captivity. My problem with captivity comes when animals, like cetaceans, that have extreme cognitive abilities or species that are highly migratory, like some sharks, are kept in enclosures. I developed this mindset overtime and through research. It didn’t happen overnight and I used to very strongly support captivity.
I believe that holding sharks in captivity doesn’t have to be all bad. Personally, I think that there are certain species, like nurse sharks who can buccal pump, that can be ok. Buccal pumping is when a shark is able to sit on the bottom and breathe by pumping their gills. However, most shark species require movement to breathe. My problem with holding sharks in captivity comes with the fact that most species need more space than a tank to efficiently swim. The research professor I worked with in college did studies on sand tiger sharks in captivity that developed spinal deformities. It was determined that trauma induced during capture, irregular swimming behavior and nutritional deficiencies, as well as other factors associated with captivity led to the spinal issues in the sharks. (Huber et al., 2013).
Another huge issue with holding sharks in captivity is when highly migratory species are kept in small tanks. This is one of my main issues with Georgia Aquarium’s new exhibit. Keeping tiger sharks in captivity is not ok. Tiger sharks are a species that can travel up to 60 miles a day. I can’t see how that makes them a good candidate to live in a tank. They also are holding a silky shark which is a pelagic species that can cover large areas of ocean.
Ultimately, I have problems with the species chosen to be homed in Georgia Aquarium’s new exhibit. I hope to hear back from the aquarium soon as to how they procured the sharks. If they were indeed fished from FL waters I definitely have problems with that as well. I think that aquariums can have an extremely valuable roll in education and creating stewardship for our oceans. However, it is important to be mindful on the species kept as some animals aren’t suited for captivity. Keeping sharks in captivity, especially those that are highly migratory, is not something I would endorse.
Update 12/08/20: Since publishing this it was announced that “Trixie” passed away on 11/27. She was transferred to the aquarium in 2006 from Taiwan. No details were provided as to cause of death.