Whale Sharks in Captivity

I love whale sharks. There's something very uplifting about such an enormous animal being so gentle. But I think it's pretty clear that whale sharks don't belong in aquariums:

A young whale shark that sank to the bottom of its tank at the Georgia Aquarium this year and died had been forcibly fed for months, a practice that may have punctured its stomach and caused an infection that led to its death, scientists said Wednesday.

The whale shark was fed with a tube after it seemed to lose its appetite over a period of months last year, said Robert Hueter, director of the center for shark research at the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fla., who participated in the examination of the shark's body. Dr. Hueter said it was possible the shark's stomach had been punctured by the feeding tube.

When we have to force feed our enclosed animals, something has gone very wrong. But the Atlanta aquarium isn't the first place to struggle with keeping whale sharks alive in captivity.

A study of 16 whale sharks kept at the Okinawa Expo Aquarium from 1980 to 1998 found they survived, on average, 502 days in captivity.

"We don't know enough about whale sharks to say we can keep them alive for long periods of time in a captive environment," said Jason A. Holmberg, a scientist with the Earthwatch Institute who is studying whale sharks in the Ningaloo Reef in Australia. "The expectation is that if you put a whale shark in an aquarium, it's a death sentence."

I think zoos and aquariums should have to meet some basic threshold of knowledge before they are allowed to keep certain species. If you don't know how to take care of an animal, then you can't take of it. I'm afraid it's that simple. We should study whale sharks in the wild before we try to keep them in a big tank.


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There's something very uplifting about such an enormous animal being so gentle.

Well, I'll admit to something of the same emotional reaction ... but surely the corollary is that there's something nasty and offputting about a great white shark being so cruel?

I'm not sure that either reaction is realistic or "helpful" (whatever that means) ...

By Scott Belyea (not verified) on 29 Mar 2007 #permalink

I'll have to agree with Scott, above: if whale sharks are "gentle" then white sharks must be "vicious killers", Orcas must be "Hunters of the Sea" and so on?

Trying to keep the species in captivity before knowing what environmental, dietary and other aspects are crucial sure is a bit stupid, sure, but that does not plant a glory-circle on the head of the animal in question.

I wonder whether there is enough observational data available to conclude that whale sharks are gentle or not.

The history of keeping animals in captivity has often been one of a series of failures sometimes culminating in an eventual ability to maintain them for some period of time as new foods, etc. were tried.

Whales, for example, are typically short-lived in aquariums. Leaf-eating monkeys were notoriously short-lived, but animals like the proboscis monkey were such a hit with zoo-goers that replacements for the dying animals were always sought.

The more interesting question than how much we need to know about an animal's fundamental needs in order to keep it alive, is whether we should keep it in captivity in the first place.

In the case of whale sharks, no captive environment is likely to ever recreate the essentially limitless expanse of the ocean.

Who cares whether a whale shark is gentle? The point is that aquariums shouldn't try to keep them until and unless they know how to keep them alive.

I was at first very much against the Georgia Aquarium's plans to have whale sharks, because originally they were going to take them from Belize and pay for them by donating money to shark conservation work in that country. But then they decided to get the sharks instead from Taiwan, from fishermen who otherwise would've killed the sharks for their flesh and fins. So, on the one hand, these sharks were "saved" from ending up in fish markets and fin shops, but on the other hand, putting them in aquaria does seem to be akin to a death sentence. We'll have to see how the other three sharks do.

As for calling them "gentle" or calling white sharks "vicious," this is neither here nor there. I think Jonah was simply commenting on how amazing these animals are if you get the chance to see them up close. (I have been within inches of several, and it was definitely an incredible experience.)

Damn... tinisoli beat me to the point; while the aquarium shouldn't have been experimenting on the sharks to see if they could keep them (and breed them, as they were intending to do somehow), the sharks would have likely ended up as food if they were not purchased from the Taiwan (they're called "tofu shark" there, if it gives you any hint). When the issue originally came up, I remember expressing my outrage to a friend of mine and his response was "Well, how are we ever going to learn to keep them if we don't try?" Such seems to be the sentiment of many in the aquarium business (and it is increasingly a business). It's hard enough keeping terrestrial animals in an environment where they're comfortable and reasonably content in order to breed them and implement conservation plans; imagine how difficult it is to ethically care for a large pelagic species that lives in an entirely different medium. I volunteered at an aquarium briefly until I discovered they were continually displaying animals that were dying of stress, the mentality being "Well, we'll just get a new one" than deciding not to display the species anymore.

The whale shark story also reminds me of the constant attempts to keep a great white in captivity; they always have to be returned to the ocean because they stop eating or keep ramming the walls. If anything was being learned from these experiences, if papers were being produced and published, I could at least understand the case for keeping such animals in captivity, but no such efforts seem to be made, the big fish just making for bigger box-office takes than education.

tinisoli, they may have "saved" that particular shark, but by paying well for it fishermen are encouraged to go out and capture more of them. There will still be meat in the market. If you want to stop fishing of whale sharks you need to destroy the market for them instead!

The situation in Taiwan with the whale sharks was that they are allowed to catch a very limited number of them per year, and in this case the aquarium paid for four of those sharks that had been caught. Selling those sharks for live display rather than for food did not entitle the fishermen to take four more sharks. The annual quotas are hard; where the sharks end up doesn't matter. If the fishermen sold all 30 sharks (2007 quota) to aquariums around the world it would not entitle them to go catch 30 more for the meat/fin market. The aquarium certainly wouldn't acquire sharks in this way if it effectively encouraged MORE fishing for whale sharks. They'd never get away with that from a PR standpoint.

"... if papers were being produced and published, I could at least understand the case for keeping such animals in captivity."

Yes, so long as papers are being published, anything whatsoever should be allowed.

"Yes, so long as papers are being published, anything whatsoever should be allowed"

Rick, I was not suggesting that unethical and inhumane collecting and display practices are permissible if done in the name of science, but rather suggesting that these institutions aren't even trying to learn anything about the animals they have captured. It seems to be all about box office, and what I was trying to convey (although I should have expanded on it) was that if these aquariums were learning anything from the animals I could at least understand (although still oppose) their rationale and at least we would learn something; as they currently stand many zoos and aquariums are visual experiences, and few people actually learn anything by their visits.

Anyway, sorry I did not clarify my position more thoroughly, and thanks for calling me on it.

Aquariums have to draw visitors, but most do so to fund research and conservation activities. Having a high-profile animal like a white shark or a whale shark could justifiably be called a necessary evil, but it needn't always end with a dead fish. And there certainly is a lot of legit research going on in the back rooms and labs of many aquariums. It's hard to imagine that, on the whole, aquariums do not benefit the oceans by at least getting people to be aware of what's out there. For many people, aquariums offer them their one and only chance to see what species are out there in the seas.

"Aquariums have to draw visitors.."

tinisoli, we are unlikely to agree on this in the near future.

I will concede this: If aquariums/zoos have made you care even a little more about animals, then I guess they're not universily evil.

You disagree with the statement "aquariums have to draw visitors"? Is there a single public aquarium on Earth that does not rely on large numbers of paying customers to support its operations and very existence?

Yes, I disagree with the statement "aquariums have to draw visitors." I think we are thinking about it in two different ways or from different perspectives.

I don't think we should have zoos or aquariums generally, so the statement "aquariums have to draw visitors" strikes me like the statement, "we have to fund the troops in Iraq." They are both based on premises I don't accept.

Right. And if I said Automobile engines require fuel and you said No they dont and I asked Why not? I suppose youd say Because we dont really need automobiles. Reminds me of Orr, Yossarians roommate in Catch-22.