Are fish friends or food?

“Saving animals from the dinner plate” … and serving others to visitors

Many people associate zoos and aquariums with the protection of species and believe that their ultimate aim is to release animals back to the wild. Whilst release to the wild very rarely happens in zoos and, indeed, it has been shown that aquariums are still taking animals from the sea to stock their tanks, CAPS’ investigator was told that there are some release programmes in operation at Sea Life centres. In particular the lobsters, it was stated by a member of staff at the Hunstanton centre, are part of a release programme with 20-30 being freed every few months. However when questioned further, it was confirmed that the animals were released as part of a “sustainable fishery”. In other words, they were released with a view to end up as food. Sea Life state that this “helps both lobster conservation and the food industry”.

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On the one hand, Sea Life tells its visitors that it has saved some animals, such as giant crabs, from death on people’s dinner plates, whilst knowingly sending others to suffer the same fate. This can hardly fail to present a confusing and contradictory message to visitors.

This confused messaging involving claims of saving animals from being eaten whilst sending other animals to be eaten is further compounded by the serving of fish in the aquarium restaurants. Fish available at Sea Life events includes cod; a species which, until recently, was recommended by experts for inclusion on the endangered species list.

Perhaps more importantly, from an ethical perspective, it is difficult to encourage visitors, and particularly young people, to develop empathy and respect for animals that they are seeing in aquariums if those same animals are later presented to them as food. The overriding message is not that oceans and marine life should be conserved because the lives of those animals and the habitats in which they live are valuable in their own right, but that conservation of these species is necessary in order to ensure an endless supply of food for people.

In truth, marine animal species and habitats are suffering catastrophic degradation as the result of fishing for human consumption. The most important message that Sea Life could pass on to its visitors is to refrain from eating fish, and thus supporting destructive industries (either directly or indirectly) altogether. Of course, whilst Sea Life buys animals from fishermen, takes animals from the wild itself, and serves fish up to visitors in its restaurants, delivering this simple conservation message becomes impossible without condemning its own practices.

[Read next section: Conservation claims that don’t add up]