Animal welfare worries

It was once thought that fish lacked intelligence and sentience but, for a number of years, it has been recognised that this is not the case. The myth that fish have three-second memories has long been dispelled by clear scientific evidence, and yet fish are still treated as little more than ornaments rather than the sentient animals that they are. Fish and other aquatic animals have physical, social, behavioural and environmental needs which must be met in order for them to experience a good quality of life. Sea Life makes the claim that it only keeps animals that “flourish” in an aquarium environment, but in many cases this claim does not appear to be borne out in evidence.

The Freedom for Animals investigator found evidence of stress-related disease, high mortality and repetitive behaviours indicative of an inability to cope with captive situations in the centres visited.

A clear case of neglect was described by a member of Sea Life staff during the investigation. At Oban Sea Life, an apparently knowledgeable member of staff allegedly voiced concerns to senior management regarding signs that the Shore crabs were infected with a dangerous parasite (Sacculina carcini). The Freedom for Animals investigator was told that concerns were ignored for several weeks by the Animal Care team and eventually the crabs were deemed too sick to be on display and were killed. The animals were allegedly killed by a senior member of staff by placing them into a box filled with an (unknown) toxic substance. The animals apparently took 30 minutes to die.

Shark4smallIn 2007, Sea Life staff negligence was responsible for the deaths of three Black-tipped reef sharks who were being transported 70 miles between Great Yarmouth Sea Life and a refurbished tank at Hunstanton. It was reported that the three died because their water was too cold[i]. According to a news report, the company confirmed that, due to a mistake made by a staff member, the water was two degrees centigrade below the minimum required for sharks.

When specifically asked about how the welfare of the animals was monitored and assessed, answers from staff were vague. One member of staff said that the welfare of the turtles was decided based on whether they were “feeding and swimming” along with “a general sort of looking over the body”. The Animal Care member of staff added “I mean if he’s swimming around he’s pretty happy then that’s probably a good indicator” and “if they stop eating they are not happy”.

Staff at Great Yarmouth Sea Life informed Freedom for Animals investigator that successful breeding is a positive indicator of welfare. Yet it has been demonstrated that breeding when considered as a stand-alone criterion cannot be considered a viable indicator of good welfare[ii]. Even if it were, Sea Life itself admits that many of the species in its care are not breeding in their centres. Indeed, the fact that marine fish do not breed well in captivity is the very reason that these animals are taken from the sea. By the company’s own welfare indicators, therefore, it seems that the needs of many of the animals are unlikely to be being met in full.

Crab tiny tank

Welfare concerns with regard to provision of a suitable environment included lack of an appropriate substrate (particularly for fish and other animals that spend time buried in the sea bed), lack of space to leave the water (in the case of turtles and alligators), lack of space to swim (in the case of alligators), no access to outdoors whatsoever (in the case of penguins and reptiles), lack of environmental enrichment (for many species), lack of space to retreat from view (for many species), lack of space to retreat from other animals (for many species) and nocturnal and diurnal species being housed together and thus being subjected to each others’ light cycle, amongst other things.


Some large fish were housed in cylindrical tanks which were barely longer than their own body length. One large arowana was unable to swim more than one body length. Other large fish that are naturally social and construct nests in the wild were housed alone in barren tanks not much larger than their own body length. These tanks also lacked enrichment which meant the fish were denied the ability to carry out even the bare minimum of their natural behaviours.

Croc space

Abnormal behaviour such as pacing and surface breaking behaviour (SBB) was documented in various sites but was often dismissed by staff. Staff at different centres gave differing reasons for surface breaking behaviour in ray species, including that the rays were greedy (and thus constantly looking for food), that they were “dancing”, “excited”, “friendly”, “coming up for oxygen” or that they were trying to “read visitor’s heartbeats”. Perhaps the most bizarre suggestion was that that the persistent surface breaking behaviour demonstrated by a dog fish was the fish coming to the surface to “smell the air”. These responses either show a serious lack of understanding on the part of the staff entrusted with educating aquarium visitors or deliberate attempts to cover up undesirable behaviours in the animals, which are likely caused by captivity related stress.


Staff at Scarborough Sea Life admitted: “White spot [a parasite] is quite common, especially in blue [Regal] tangs as they get a bit stressed with a lack of space” and that the animals may “feel claustrophobic” in their tanks. Staff at Sea Life aquariums mentioned white spot as if it was intrinsic with aquariums but it is, in fact, as confirmed by staff at the Scarborough centre, “very easy to treat”. Despite this, at Blackpool it was admitted that “obviously we get white spot from time-to-time, which has meant high mortality in those tanks”. As white spot can, by the company’s own admission, be treated, it is unclear how high mortality in tanks in Blackpool was allowed to occur.

Naturally migratory sharks live in small pools in Sea Life centres. At the Manchester centre, visitors can pay to enter the tanks with them as part of the company’s “Sea Trek” experience. This close encounter experience is offered despite a shark dying from a haemorrhage thought to have been caused by stress when a person entered the tank at Brighton Sea Life in 2003. Staff at the time were quotes in press as saying that an unfamiliar person swimming around would have caused a lot of stress[iii].

Touch pool

Other “close encounters” were offered to visitors where they could stroke a starfish or pick up a crab. Starfish were kept in tubs of water, not much larger than their own bodies, in shallow rock pool exhibits. When asked why the animals were kept in tubs, a member of staff told Freedom for Animals investigator that it was so they could be easily removed for people to be able to touch them. The starfish were rotated on a two hourly basis.

Crabs were taken directly out of the pool and shown to visitors. One member of staff turned one crab upside down in order to make the animal “play dead” whilst explaining that the crab was tame, like a cat or a dog. This “playing dead” was, in fact, likely a stress or fear response by the animal to being removed abruptly from the water. Some crab species feign death when disturbed by a predator. Deliberately eliciting this response for entertainment of visitors is, at best, irresponsible and, at worst, cruel. One staff put the situation quite bluntly, stating: “to be fair, with the crabs, their job is to be picked up and poked in the head”.

[Read next section: Sea Life’s secret cetacean circus]

[ii] Broom, D.  and Johnson K. G.  (1993) Stress and Animal Welfare. Chapman and Hall/Kluwer