Aquatic Animals: Captivity and Protection

December 3, 2020Lu Shegay


Animals used in entertainment is one of the widespread practices around the world. Animals are kept in circuses, zoos, rodeos, aquariums, etc. Oftentimes a lot of species of aquatic animals are not drawing the public’s attention, mostly because aquariums’ visitors see “smiling” dolphins and other animals happy. However, not so many people express interest in whether aquatic animals are well treated or whether they are actually happy in kept tanks. Animal rights activists have been raising awareness against aquariums for the same reasons they are against zoos. Fish have been proven by scientists to feel suffering and fear, not to mention that marine mammals are intelligent creatures and confinement destroys them and has a negative impact on their behavior and well-being.

From the animal rights perspective, keeping animals in captivity leads to the infringement of animals’ rights to freedom because obviously in the wild, animals live longer due to performing their natural behavior. Animal welfarists have the opinion that humans can use animals’ rights as long as animals are treated well, and from that point of view the issue with aquariums might be problematic. Generally, large animals, such as orcas and whales, are kept in small tanks, which completely contradicts animals’ natural behavior. As a result, animals get frustrated and express their unusual behavior. Moreover, the environment in the tanks is not marine, water is filled with salt and other artificial additives. And finally, the process of catching aquatic animals itself has a huge impact on animals creating a stressful and injurious environment.

Why is Confinement Bad for Animals?

Orcas, for instance, spend their entire life with their families, while dolphins live in family pods in the wild. Large nets are used to catch aquatic animals and when caught, unwanted animals are thrown back to the water. Hundreds of dolphins are cruelly captured in Japan for aquariums or meat every year. The International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) is an international agreement that was enacted “to provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry.” ICRW was signed to protect whales from overhunting, to establish a system of international regulation for the whale fisheries to ensure proper conservation and development of whale stocks, and to preserve the great natural resources represented by whale stocks for future generations. There are 89 signatories of this convention and 8 countries that were initially members of the convention expressed their withdrawal. These countries include Canada, Egypt, Greece, Jamaica, Mauritius, the Philippines, Seychelles, and Venezuela. Moreover, Belize, Brazil, Dominica, Ecuador, Iceland, Japan, New Zealand, and Panama withdrawn from the convention after ratification but later on, ratified it a second time. However, Japan expressed the objection to the convention again in 2019.

Life in captivity causes animals’ mental stress but also lead to physical damage to animals. Additives that are used in the water of tanks contain the chlorine and copper sulfate that can cause dolphins to go blind. A lot of marine mammals in captivity also suffer from peptic ulcers that are caused by the consequences of mental health damage and lead to the death of animals.

A great example is the Tilikum whale who was captured near Iceland and being a 2-year old orca, he was separated from his family and the ocean. He was living in Canada, a park, where he had to face attacks from two dominant female orcas. In the park, he was forced to perform 8 times a day, every hour, 7 days a week. As a result of the mental stress and physical exhaustion, he got stomach ulcers. Upon the closure of the park at the end of the day, Tilikum was placed with incompatible orcas in a small round metal-sided tank for more than 14 hours until the park reopened in the morning. One of the trainers of the park fell into the pool and was pulled to the bottom by Tilikum. His behavior was explained by the stress and frustration inside the tank. Tilikum was seen to have a collapsed dorsal fin, which was a sign of an unhealthy and stressed orca - only a few orcas in the wild have collapsed fins. Later on, another aggressive behavior was observed towards humans, one of them was breaking bones of the trainer’s body before drowning. After that, Tilikum was placed in a tiny enclosure where his nose and tail were able to touch the sides of the tank and where he did not have the capacity to swim and communicate with other orcas. He was floating in the water for hours - such behavior is never observed in wild orcas. Tilikum’s performance was resumed but without close contact with humans. In 2016, his health worsened and he was considered to have a lung infection due to bacterial pneumonia, which is a common reason for the death of captive whales and dolphins. In 2017, SeaWorld announced Tilikum’s death due to bacterial infection.

Unfortunately, Tilikum is not the only whale who suffered in captivity and performed unusual behavior to the stress and maltreatment. Aquariums continue operating their businesses and using animals to entertain people without even knowing how much damage they cause to animals.

Read more here.

In the wild marine environment, animals can swim long distances, while in captivity, they are confined in tiny tanks, which prevents them from communicating. Stingrays, for instance, suffer in tanks due to the lack of an opportunity to find food away from humans as they are used to doing in the wild. Their stinger barbs are also removed, which leave them defenseless. Apart from that, stingrays and many other animals are constantly touched by humans, which is generally unnatural and unhealthy for animals. Stingrays have a natural coating on their skin that protects them from danger and easily damaged from humans’ touch. Aquariums do not educate children and adults but teach that it is acceptable to keep wild animals in captivity and have the same message as zoos. It demonstrates that animals when they are cramped and bored, can entertain people, while they could live their natural life in the wild environment.

The Protection of Aquatic Animals

United States

In the United States, on the federal level, the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) covers warm-blooded animals in aquariums, e.g, marine mammals and penguins, but exempts fish and invertebrates.

Another federal legal instrument is the Marine Mammal Protection Act that protects whales, dolphins, seals, walruses, sea lions, sea otters, polar bears, dugongs, and manatees. However, the Act does not prohibit keeping those animals in captivity. The term “marine mammal” is defined by the Act as any mammal who is “morphologically adapted to the marine environment, including sea otters and members of the orders of Sirenia, Pinnipedia and Cetacea” or who is “primarily inhabits the marine environment, such as the polar bear; and, for the purposes of this chapter, includes any part of any such marine mammal, including its raw, dressed, or dyed fur or skin.” (§ 1362(6)) The Act also establishes the moratorium on taking and importing marine mammals and marine mammal products. § 1375 provides the penalties for the violation of any provisions of this Act, which is assessed a civil penalty of not more than $10 000 for each violation.

The Endangered Species Act was enacted to “provide a means whereby the ecosystems upon which endangered species and threatened species depend may be conserved, to provide a program for the conservation of such endangered species and threatened species, and to take such steps as may be appropriate to achieve the purposes of the treaties and conventions set forth in subsection (a) of this Section.” The Act applies to all categories of animals, including marine mammals, fish, and invertebrates, as well as those endangered species that might be kept in aquariums and other types of captivity.


Palau is a small country located in the western Pacific Ocean and consists of approximately 340 islands. It is a great example of how a small country is able to do big things. The country has a diverse fauna, including 1300 species of fish. Even historically, Palau has closed significant sites to fishing activities periodically to protect their marine environment. The small island country controls a vast majority of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and closed approximately 80% of its EEZ to any fishing or extraction activities. The government called in the public to launch a campaign “Stand with Palau,” where the country could raise $53 000 to maintain the reserve. Moreover, Palau is one of the first countries in the world that opened a shark sanctuary or so-called shark parks to protect sharks from fishing, shark finning, etc.


The European Union (EU) recognizes animals as sentient beings in the Treaty of Lisbon. Each Member State has its own regulations and provisions regarding aquatic animals at its national level, as well as multiannual plans that define measures to address the issues with regard to aquatic animals. However, there are EU directives that are binding on the Member States. Council Directive 98/58/EC in the definition of an “animal” includes fish, reptiles, or amphibians, and farmed fish are considered farmed animals.

The enforcement agencies include European Commission, European Council, Baltic Sea Advisory Council, Black Sea Advisory Council, Market Advisory Council, North Sea Advisory Council, Pelagic stocks Advisory Council, and South-western waters Advisory Council.

Fisheries are managed at every point in the chain from the boat to the retailer. Fishing vessels are not even allowed to leave port without a valid license to fish. Though checks at the sea are still done, the focus is now on checks: in ports where fish is landed or transshipped; during transport; in factories that process fish; and at markets where fish is sold. At every point along the production chain, for every consignment of fish, information must be provided that proves that the fish was caught legally. Standards for all these different kinds of inspection are set at the EU level.

Agreements with non-EU Member States

The EU has 2 types of fishing agreements with non-EU countries:

Trade and import

With regard to trade and import, Directive 2006/88/EC governs any placing on the market within each Member State and imports into the European Union. In general terms, this means that aquaculture animals and products from both within the EU and from non-EU countries must broadly fulfill similar animal health requirements before they can be moved.

Commission Regulation (EC) 710/2009 establishes specific rules for mollusks and covers the provisions regarding the transport of live fish. Read more here.


In Asia, the protection of animals used in entertainment is regulated in most countries, but regulate the practice of zoos and sometimes circuses. However, the conduct of aquariums and sea parks is not mentioned and not regulated. Businesses with confined aquatic animals are still operating in the countries of Asia and aquatic animals are often caught in Asian countries for import to other regions, such as Europe and North America. With that being said, for instance, capturing live coral reef fish for the aquarium markets in Europe and North America has begun in the 1960s in the Philippines. Although cyanide fishing is illegal in Indo-Pacific countries, weak enforcement and corruption allow this practice to continue. Since the 1960s, more than 1 million kilograms of cyanide has been brought to the Philippines.

In Singapore, the Animals and Birds Act covers the provisions on the importation, transshipment, exportation of animals and birds, animal welfare, penalties, etc. The term “animal” means “any mammal (other than man) or fish and includes any other living creature” and shall include “fish” as “fish.” The term “fish” includes any of the varieties of marine, brackish water or freshwater fish, crustacea, aquatic mollusks, turtles, marine sponges, trepang, and any other form of aquatic life and the young and eggs thereof.

See our blog on the protection of animals in Singapore.

In China, more than 60 marine parks operate in the country with 20% in attendance. China is considered the leading global country in the captive marine mammal industry. Since 2014, approximately 872 cetaceans have been confined in China. Some endangered species, e.g, orcas and beluga whales, are among those aquatic animals who are illegally caught and sold. For example, at least 15 Russian orcas have been imported to the country in 2013-2017.

See our blog on the protection of animals in China.

In Thailand, the national Criminal Code applies to animals kept in captivity and used for entertainment. Officials are authorized to inspect premises where animal ill-treatment is suspected to take place. They also hold a right to seize animals in case if there is suspicion that animals might be killed or be victims of cruelty. However, it is not clear if this applies to aquatic animals kept in captivity. The Wildlife Preservation and Protection Act applies to wildlife sanctuaries and public zoos where the number of aquatic animals may not be necessarily big, but it is common when zoos keep a few aquatic animals. The Act also prohibits killing and keeping protected wild species, as well as possessing protected wild animals in the country. However, there is an exemption to such a rule, if a person obtained a wild animal for private keeping before the Act came into force, they are allowed to keep an animal but must file a report and undergo an inspection by a relevant officer.

See our blog on the protection of animals in Thailand.


Aquatic animals are usually often-forgotten animals and have less concern from the public. Some regions of the world are leading consumers of seafood, while some countries practice catching and exporting aquatic animals to other countries for the meat market or entertainment. The majority of countries in Asia, for instance, have the regulation with regard to wild animals and it applies to some species of aquatic animals too, however, there are countries that protect only endangered species of wild animals. In Asia, none of the countries have a separate legally binding instrument with regard to the protection of aquatic animals, but the majority of countries regulate keeping animals in entertainment and captivity. The issue of enforcement still remains unknown and it is necessary to address that keeping animals, including aquatic animals, in captivity is detrimental.

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