Whilst the origin of many animals that end up in Sea Life tanks is a secret kept closely guarded by the company, the arrival of others from their ocean home are subject to a great deal of publicity; particularly those that can be seen to bolster Sea Life’s reputation for wildlife rescue.
Sea Life claims that its work has a strong focus on the rescue of animals. Indeed, the Sea Life brand acquired two seal sanctuaries in Gweek (Cornwall) and Oban (Scotland) which do carry out valuable rescue projects. Conversely, many of the highly publicised “rescues” carried out by the company have, in fact, transpired to be commercial transactions where animals appear to have been purchased by Sea Life in order for them to spend their lives in a tank.
For example, in March 2013, a nine-foot Japanese spider crab was, according to Sea Life, “rescued from being on Japanese dinner plates”[i]. In fact, Sea Life had purchased the animal from a fisherman. The purchase of the male crab appeared to be particularly well-timed as, at that time, the aquarium also held a female of the same species that required a male to fertilise her eggs.
This follows a similar transaction in 2012, when three Tasmanian king crabs were “rescued from fisherman” off the coast of Tasmania. Sea Life “saved them from death” by buying them from the fishermen for £3,000[ii]. It appears that the practice of buying animals from those people removing them from their natural habitat and then characterising that transaction as a rescue is a way in which Sea Life generates positive publicity about its work.
A similar situation occurred when 20 turtles were reportedly “rescued” from a turtle farm in the Cayman Island; one of whom is likely to be ‘Ernie’, the Green sea turtle at Manchester Sea Life. At the time the proposal to acquire the turtles was made, it was met with opposition by leading conservation organisations who maintained that the move would contravene rules on the trade in endangered species[iii]. It appears that despite this strong opposition, Sea Life went ahead and imported the 20 turtles from the Cayman Islands farm with permission from UK authorities. No published information is available to confirm whether or not money changed hands in the transaction but given that the turtle farm is a for-profit business, it seems reasonable to assume that this was a commercial transaction.
According to both national media and Sea Life staff, the removal of ‘Ernie’ from the farm for exhibit was another “rescue”[iv]. However, as in the case of Sea Life’s acquisition of the giant crabs, the acquisition of the turtles from a company which breeds them for sale can hardly be characterised as a rescue. Furthermore, these types of practices unarguably fuels the trade in wildlife, as demand is met by those willing to supply animals to those seeking them out.
Finally, some of the other turtles in Sea Life centres have reportedly been rescued by the company after being injured by speedboats. Whilst caring for injured wildlife appears to offer legitimate cause for rescue, the CAPS investigator was informed that the turtles had been flown in from Florida in order to live in Sea Life tanks in the UK. Given the known threats to animal health and welfare during travel, transporting injured wildlife over 4,000 miles suggests that the “rescue” of these animals was not carried out with the individuals’ welfare in mind. Furthermore, included in the list of charitable organisations that Sea Life claims to support is “Florida Sea Turtle Rescue”. An internet search showed no organisation currently operating under this name but its inclusion in Sea Life’s list of beneficiaries suggests that the aquarium chain has or has had active links with an organisation focused upon turtle rescue in the very place from which they originate. This raises further concerns over the company’s decision to transport the allegedly injured animals to the UK.