• Conservation Expeditions

The Captivity of Migratory Marine Animals

When it comes to animal welfare, three crucial ethical concerns are commonly expressed: the functioning of the animals’ normal biological state, their emotional state, and their ability to express their natural behaviours (Fraser, Weary, Pajor & Milligan, 1997). Furthermore, the behaviour of animals is directly linked to their welfare as some behaviour patterns appear to be important for some animals and are called “behavioural needs” as “animals will have the need to perform the behaviour regardless of where they are kept. Although the concept of behavioural needs is controversial, it is clear that failure to show some behaviours may have negative consequences for the animals” (Manteca & Salas, 2015). Indeed, this topic can bring controversy about animals held in zoos or aquariums, especially migratory species that, in a confine environment, will not be able to conduct their natural behaviour of travelling long distances. As explained by Dawkins (2004), "animal welfare is compromised if a captive animal fails to show all of the behaviour normal to a free-living member of its species."

Migration as a natural behaviour

The definition of a migratory species, given by the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) is as follows: “the entire population or any geographically separate part of the population of any species or lower taxon of wild animals, a significant pro­portion of whose members cyclically and predictably cross one or more national jurisdictional boundaries.” Thus, this definition demonstrates that migration is a natural behaviour for some animal species. However this type of behaviour cannot be reproduced in aquariums, even though “One of the primary aims of aquariums is to present species as they would be seen in nature, with as many natural behaviours as possible” (Sabalones, Walters & Rueda, 2004). Furthermore, allowing animals to live according to their nature “would mean that animals should be allowed to live in a manner that corresponds to their adaptations and to have the type of ontogenic development that is normal for the species” (Fraser, Weary, Pajor, & Milligan, 1997). In addition, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) recommends its member organisations to “seek to ensure that the animals’ physical and behavioural needs are met. Provide environmental challenges that encourage curiosity and engagement, as well aschoice of access to natural elements, including seasonal changes. Also accommodate the changing needs of an animal or group of animals over time.

Although nothing is specifically said about migration, travelling long distances is a natural behaviour for certain species, which cannot be reproduced in zoos and aquariums. Hence, depriving migratory animals to travel would not be in accordance with the natural biology of these animals. As an example, Dawkins (2004) explains that if migratory birds are held in captivity, they will become restless in autumn and repeatedly attempt to escape, even if their other needs such as being fed and being healthy are satisfied. In addition, discomfort, unnatural behaviour or even death are possible consequences of captivity amongst migratory animals, specially cetaceans and sharks. Indeed, aquariums are not the exact reproduction of the natural environment, which leads to the behaviour of captive species to become different from their wild counterparts (Sabalones & al, 2004).

Migratory species in aquariums

Cetaceans in aquariums: Almost every kind of marine mammal, such as dolphins, travel large distances in a search for food. Once in captivity, their migratory pattern and natural feeding are completely lost, which could lead to stress and behaviours such as self-mutilation or abnormal aggression: “wild-caught captive marine mammals gradually experience the atrophy of many of their natural behaviours” (Rose & al. 2009). For instance, there are records of killer whales in captivity that became extremely aggressive, attacking humans or other orcas, as well as captive females that rejected their newborns.

Whale sharks in aquariums: Whale sharks were first exhibited in the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium in 1982, and other aquariums followed such as the Osaka Aquarium Kayukan, the Taiwan’s National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium, and the Georgia Aquarium (Leu, Li, Ju, Hsiao, Chang, Meng, Tew, & Wang, 2015). Whale sharks are highly migratory species and thus swim across oceans. According to Lei & al (2015), no scientific reports on the husbandry conditions whale sharks in captivity have been published. This contrasts considerably with the literature and research on cetaceans held in aquariums, which is considerably large.

Great White Sharks in aquariums: Great white sharks are also highly migratory species (Fowler, 2014; Eczura, Lowe, Mollet, Ferry, & O’Sullivan, 2012), but unlike cetaceans or whale sharks, they are no longer displayed in aquariums. Indeed, as explained by Ellis and McCosker (1991), the rarity of the species and the difficulties to capture and transport them have denied most aquariums the possibility to display a healthy great white. Nevertheless, in the past, great whites have been on display in aquariums, but for a very short time, as they died a few days or weeks after their capture. For example, in Hawwaii in 1961 a specimen has been in display for 24 hours before it died, and in 1962 another specimen was captured and brought to Marineland in Florida and died 36 hours later. The authors give ten other examples of great white sharks that have been captured for aquarium display, with the same results every time: the death of the animal. Although the exact cause of death is not explained, the fact that great whites were deprived from their natural behaviour of swimming large distances is probably related to one of the causes of death. However, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is a WAZA member, has since 2004, been displaying five juvenile great white sharks (Eczura & al, 2012). The sharks were released after several months being put in display, the longest being 198 days. It is unclear if Monterey Bay Aquarium will perpetuate this cycle of capture, exhibition and release of great whites in the future.


We can state that, by holding migratory species captive, aquariums do not respect one of the three crucial ethical concerns: the ability to express normal behaviours, as suggested by Fraser (1997), which includes one of the crucial behavioural needs of migratory sea animals: the ability to swim long distances. It seems impossible for aquariums (and zoos) to respect the migratory behaviours of certain species, as a contrived environment will automatically prevent animals from conducting this behaviour. This leads us to the question: should WAZA reinforce its regulations on animals in captivity, by preventing migratory species to be captive?

In addition, there are lots of reports focusing on cetaceans, such as dolphins and killer whales, held in captivity, and why they should be freed. However, only few research or documentation about migratory sharks in captivity have been conducted, even though many great white sharks died a few days after being moved to aquariums. Hence, it seems crucial to conduct more research on other migratory species held in captivity other than dolphins and killer whales, as they are not the only aquatic animals to suffer from contrived spaces.


Animal Diversity Web, Rhincodon typus whale shark, consulted the 25thof march 2017 on

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Rose, N. A, Parsons, E. C. M, Farinato, R. Humane Society of the United States, World Society for the Protection of Animals, The Case Against Marine Mammals in Captivity, Fourth Edition, (2009).

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