Conservation claims that don’t add up


Rays are bred, not for conservation, but to stock fish tanks

Merlin, the parent organisation of Sea Life, reported revenue of over £1 billion (£1,074,000,000) in 2012[i]. Despite this, when questioned specifically on monetary contribution to conservation efforts, a senior manager from Sea Life was only able to offer concrete evidence of £250,000 donated to a turtle sanctuary in Greece. This amounts to just 0.02% of Merlin’s total revenue and less than three pence per person being able to be traced directly to in situ conservation. It was noticed by Freedom for Animals investigator that there were donation collection points asking for money from Sea Life visitors for the turtle sanctuary in each of its centres. As such, it is not clear whether or not Sea Life donates any of its own takings to the initiative or simply the money that its customers give over and above their entrance fee (currently around £65 per family group, dependent on location).

IMG_0918According to signage at Brighton Sea Life centre, almost £1,000 has been raised for the charity, Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), and £10,000 for the Greek turtle sanctuary. It is unclear whether this £10,000 is part of, or in addition to, the £250,000 already disclosed.

Amongst its conservation claims, the company cites sea horse breeding as one of its major activities. Most zoos claim that breeding of animals is carried out in order to provide a “safety net” population for eventual reintroduction to the wild and Sea Life does state that if sea horses become extinct, the animals bred in their aquariums could be released. The company is, however, honest in admitting that the foremost purpose of breeding sea horses is to stock its own tanks which, it is stated, reduces the need to take animals from the sea. Of course most conservation organisations do not, themselves, pose a direct threat to wild species and so to claim that not removing animals from their natural habitat is active conservation work is somewhat misleading.

Notwithstanding the capture of animals from the wild, the vast majority of species held by Sea Life centres belong to species either not threatened in the wild, or species that have not been assessed for conservation purposes. Just 2.5% of exhibits house species which are classed as endangered.

IMG_0961According to a member of staff at the Hunstanton centre “Sea Life has standard stock … they are all key creatures that people want to see”. These animals include clown fish and regal tangs which were made famous by the film, Finding Nemo. Choosing species based on the popularity of characters in animated movies suggests that conservation is not a primary consideration for which animals might be held captive in Sea Life aquariums.

If Sea Life is not offering significant support to in situ conservation (despite its huge income) nor caring for many endangered species, there seems to be little meaningful conservation contribution being made by the business. Of course, while Sea Life continues to take animals from the wild, rather than making a positive impact on conservation, Sea Life rather appears to be part of the problem.

[Read next section: Animal welfare worries]