Ethical Debate: Captive whale sharks

WhySharksMatter beneath a whale shark

Following the deaths of two whale sharks in 2007, many animal rights activists harshly criticized the Georgia Aquarium for keeping these animals captive in the first place.  I recently visited the Georgia Aquarium for blogger day, and the aquarium’s Chief Science Officer Dr. Bruce Carlson agreed to answer my questions about their whale sharks. I know that many of you have strong opinions about shark issues, but I wanted to provide the Georgia Aquarium’s side of the story.

WhySharksMatter (WSM): How did you get whale sharks to Atlanta?

Bruce Carlson (BC): Georgia Aquarium’s whale sharks came from Taiwan’s commercial fishery, which until 2008, caught a quota of whale sharks annually for food (the Taiwanese used large nets to collect them) . The whale sharks at Georgia Aquarium were taken out of that quota.  The animals were flown more than 8,000 miles on a specially configured B747 freighter aircraft from Taipei, Taiwan, through Anchorage, Alaska, to Atlanta. All of the whale sharks were under the care and supervision of Georgia Aquarium professional staff, and were maintained by a highly advanced marine life support system.

Photo by David Shiffman

WSM: Please explain the medical care that your whale sharks receive.

BC: We have a novel, comprehensive health care/preventative medicine program for all our animals, including whale sharks. We routinely take samples including blood, which permits us to not only gather individual health data but generate biological profiles for several species.

Photo by David Shiffman

WSM: How are the whale sharks fed?

BC: The whale sharks are fed a diet consisting of krill, small shrimp and gel nutrients. Stationed in boats, Georgia Aquarium animal care specialists feed each shark individually by ladling the food into the water as the sharks swim alongside the boat.

(WSM interjection- I witnessed this feeding process and it was pretty cool to watch. Also, the Ocean Voyager tank is indeed large enough that multiple boats can fit in it)

Photo by David Shiffman

WSM: I have in the past argued that while the life of an individual shark might be worse in an aquarium than in the wild, the presence of sharks at an aquarium helps sharks as a whole by promoting education and conservation to the public. Would you say that your current whale sharks are better or worse off than they would be in the wild? Would you say that the presence of whale sharks in the Georgia Aquarium helps whale sharks as a species?

BC: The immediate answer to this question is “of course they are better off!”  The whale sharks on exhibit at the Georgia Aquarium were all destined for the fish market in Taiwan and would have been killed years ago had they not been obtained for this exhibit (NOTE: Taiwan has now banned the killing of whale sharks in their waters).  While they are now confined to an aquarium (albeit an immense aquarium!), they are healthy, well fed and receive expert veterinary care.

The ultimate impact that these animals have on the public is of great value.  Prior to 2005, only a handful of Americans had ever had the opportunity to observe a living whale shark.  Seeing a whale shark was only possible for those who could afford travel to far-off locations, or the lucky few fishermen and boaters who happened upon one out at sea.  Since the opening of the Georgia Aquarium, over 10 million people have now had the opportunity to observe these magnificent animals and listen to an informative presentation about their biology.  Standing only inches away from a 20’ living animal has significantly more impact than watching a two-dimensional animal on television or viewing a photo in a magazine.  I am certain that there are now many more people who care about whale sharks and who would advocate protecting them, than there would have been without this exhibit.  And, after watching the response of thousands of children, I have no doubt that at least a few of them will want to become marine biologists as a result of their visit to the Aquarium to see whale sharks.  These animals will thus have an impact far into the future.  Finally, as noted elsewhere, revenues generated by the Georgia Aquarium have been used to help promote research and conservation of whale sharks in the wild, particularly off the Yucatan coast of Mexico.

WhySharksMatter with a different whale shark

WSM: In 2007, the two whale sharks you had at the time died. Animals rights advocates used this as proof that certain animals shouldn’t be kept in captivity. What happened to Ralph and Norton?

BC: Several months prior to their deaths, the Aquarium’s husbandry team observed that both Ralph and Norton stopped eating within a few days of each other.  One theory to this loss of appetite was a series of conservative treatments used in 2006 to manage parasites in the 6.8 million gallon Ocean Voyager exhibit (other theories were also considered).  The other whale sharks inhabiting the exhibit did not experience this same course of treatment (one that is commonly used in professional aquariums).  As a precaution, the Aquarium immediately stopped using this treatment after the loss of appetite was observed.  The necropsy performed on Ralph indicated that peritonitis, an inflammation of the membrane that lines the abdominal cavity, was the cause of death. Norton’s necropsy did not produce any immediate findings that explained the possible cause in the decline of his health.

Photo by David Shiffman

WSM: The Georgia Aquarium is one of the few in the world that allows SCUBA divers to swim in the shark tank for a fee (my local aquarium uses volunteer divers like myself). Some have criticized this program, particularly in the wake of the deaths of Ralph and Norton. Convince us that the program is safe for the animals in the tank.

BC: There are actually several Aquariums that have dive immersion programs, many of which allow people to dive with sharks. And as noted in the question above, we have a theory as to the deaths of the two whale sharks. In Georgia Aquarium’s dive immersion program, the safety of our animals and guests is our top priority. All gear used by the participants is aquarium owned and managed, thus we are able to sanitize the equipment, mitigating the concern of introducing something undesirable to the exhibit. During the pre-dive orientation, safety rules are carefully explained. Guests are instructed on the proper procedures and the importance of observation only during the event. The dive program is a guided tour; it is not a free swim. Any behavior outside of the instructions (such as trying to touch the animal or get to close to it) results in the removal of the guest from the exhibit. After the initial orientation, guests receive an additional on-deck briefing, reiterating the safety rules during the guided tour. Guests are instructed to stay together in buddy pairs and to follow the lead dive master. A safety diver brings up the rear and monitors and assists the guests, while another safety diver maintains the group from the side. Both the safety dive master and lead dive master carry a visual and physical barrier for the animals if necessary. A fourth dive master on deck monitors the dive and is prepared to enter the water and activate emergency response if necessary. For the safety of our guests, a first aid kid and oxygen are always on deck, as well as an AED. All dive masters are rescue and first responder trained and participate in semi-monthly extrication drills. There is also constant communication between the dive team and animal care specialists to ensure everyone is fully informed and aware. In addition to all of these measures, the Georgia Aquarium team appreciates and respects the animals and are ever diligent as to their locations and actions within the environment.

Photo by David Shiffman

WSM: Advocates for zoos and aquaria often say that money generated by ticket sales goes into research and conservation efforts. What conservation and research efforts is the Georgia Aquarium involved with?

BC: While the Aquarium already has participated in a multitude of research programs, in 2010 Georgia Aquarium is financially supporting and participating in more than a dozen research projects. Some of those include, but are not limited to:

·           Three projects researching different aspects of dolphin biology in Florida and Georgia

·            Three projects studying beluga whale biology, including continued field research in Bristol Bay, Alaska

·            Continued whale shark research in Mexico, with two new foci on offshore aggregations and how they find food

·            A study of spotted eagle ray populations off the coast of Florida

·            Several clinical veterinary research projects that apply science to improving the care of the animals in our collection

·            Sea turtle population monitoring in National Wildlife Refuge(s) on the Georgia Coast

·            We will begin our first collaborative project studying Northern right whales, Georgia’s state marine mammal

The aquarium is proud of the research they support. Photo by David Shiffman

End of interview

Dr. Carlson paints a very different picture of the aquarium’s relationship with whale sharks than that of the animal rights activists.

The aquarium’s whale sharks were bought from fishermen, and would have otherwise been eaten by hungry Taiwanese. They have access to world-class medical care and healthy food. Money generated by ticket sales goes towards whale shark research and conservation in the wild, and the aquarium itself is full of excellent signage and enthusiastic volunteers who educate people about sharks.

In short, I think that the Georgia Aquarium has done a great service to these particular whale sharks and to the species as a whole. However, ethical debates aren’t just about what I think.

Do you think that it is acceptable for whale sharks to be held in captivity?

Do you think that whale sharks as a species benefit from the captivity of these few individuals?

Are you satisfied with Dr. Carlson’s explanation of the deaths of Ralph and Norton?

Do you think the “dive with the sharks” program is appropriate?


Note: This ethical debate is a heavily modified re-post of an earlier ethical debate on the old site, which can be found here. It is part one in a series of two interviews with Dr. Carlson about the Georgia Aquarium

March 19, 2010 • 12:12 am