Future Tense

Drowning Conservation

What we stand to lose if we let aquariums financially fail.

People standing in silhouette in front of a giant aquarium featuring many different types of fish.
The whale shark tank at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. Glenn Haertlein on Unsplash

You could be forgiven for not knowing that aquariums are in trouble.

They may be reaching a wider audience than they did before quarantine. The internet is flooded with videos of penguins and puppies walking through empty corridors of tanks. Flustered parents of home-schooled children receive daily reminders that they can watch livestreams of shark tanks or harbor seals. But the almost seamless pivot to online education does not insulate these institutions from financial hardship.

Caring for animals in captivity is expensive. Tank craft requires that all variables be carefully maintained—a tropical fish cannot survive without a heater and specific food. Captive creatures live a structured life that requires constant care and attention. (Did you know it can cost more to feed otters than polar bears?) And zoos and aquariums get 85 percent to 90 percent of their revenue from visitors.

Some institutions, already in dire financial straits before the shutdown, are now talking about closing their doors for good. Most are reaching out to their supporters to solicit donations. And increasingly, others have begun lobbying state and federal governments for financial assistance similar to that received by their English and Australian counterparts.

I study how public aquariums contribute to marine science and conservation. The education side of their work is important, but it often eclipses the scientific and conservation work in the public’s view as well as the knowledge that aquarists have about the environments they re-create in captivity. Over the course of the past century, public aquariums have served as important spaces for long-term conservation initiatives aimed at endangered species. Executing programs to help endangered species can take years, and the fruits of those labors can take decades to appear. Zoos and aquariums are relatively stable institutions that contribute to those long-term conservation efforts—or they have been. If we lose aquariums, we lose so much more than an interchangeable educational institution or a nice place to take your kids on the weekend. We lose important anchors in delicate conservation initiatives that would take years or even decades to replace.

Many aquariums specialize in long-term conservation projects of local species. This intensive work doesn’t necessarily result in exhibitions that bring in visitors, and some of these species are downright boring or unattractive to look at in a tank. The gopher frog of North Carolina and the Pacific sea bass don’t have the same draw as penguins or sea otters. But they are keystone species for local waterways, and aquariums are desperately working to save them. The loss of these efforts would have a negative impact on ongoing conservation goals.

The work to replenish white abalone is a good example. White abalone are endangered in California waters because of overfishing; they were the first marine invertebrate to receive full federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, in 2001. Today, the number of white abalone in California waters is so low that the species cannot reproduce. A group of organizations, the White Abalone Restoration Consortium, has arisen to develop methods for breeding and planting abalone to save the species.

Public aquariums are an important part of this endeavor. The Aquarium of the Pacific is working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, along with academic and commercial partners, to breed and transplant white abalone to bolster the local population. This is a long-term project. Abalone are slow-growing organisms, and the spaces working with them need consistency. This makes public aquariums a great place to breed them.

The program began in 2008 with the distribution of breeding stock to a wide range of laboratories and aquariums in California. Over the course of 11 years, these locations bred thousands of abalone and worked on methods for release. Because the cause of abalone depletion was human overharvesting, the abalone had to be placed off the coast to adjust to their environment but be protected from human and natural predators. Designing structures to hold the abalone without impeding their adjustment to their new environment took time. The first cages full of white abalone were secretly placed along the California coast in October. In November, the cages were opened and the white abalone were officially released into the wild for the first time. The initial release does not spell the end of this program, though. There are still thousands of maturing abalone in captivity that the aquarium and its partners will release over the coming years to raise population levels of white abalone and give this species a chance to bounce back.

The white abalone fish is seen swimming among rocks in a small water tank.
Conservation behind the scenes: Young abalone in tanks at the Aquarium of the Pacific Samantha Muka

The white abalone is not much to look at, as you can see in the image above. The conservation work on the white abalone did not double as an exhilarating exhibit. In fact, when I visited in the spring of 2019, there was only a small television, far above eye level, describing the breeding project. All the abalone were located in tanks behind the scenes and there was little conversation about the work. But the lack of aesthetic appeal of the abalone hasn’t deterred aquariums from their conservation efforts.

Some of the most popular examples of conservation breeding successes have taken decades to accomplish. For instance, Charles Townsend, the director of the New York Aquarium, took the last tortoises he could find from the Galapagos Islands in 1927. These animals served as a breeding population distributed throughout zoos and aquariums. It wasn’t until 2013 that the descendants of this stock returned to the Galapagos. Ongoing efforts to save condors and black-footed ferrets have stretched into multiple decades and programs for endangered species breeding and reintroduction have only increased.

There are other efforts at aquariums around the country to rehabilitate fish populations. A program at the Tennessee Aquarium dedicated to returning Lake sturgeon to their historic range is currently in its 21st year. The aquarium releases hundreds of aquarium-raised sturgeon into local waters annually. The newest program at the Florida Aquarium hopes to breed and grow coral in the aquarium to be released onto the struggling Florida Reef Tract. It’s partnered with the Horniman Museum and Gardens in London to develop techniques to breed coral in captivity, a process that is both technically difficult and time-intensive. Coral are slow growers, and the success of this project will require that the aquarium have consistent funding throughout the process.

But the COVID-19 closures have put aquariums, and their conservation efforts, in precarious financial positions. The Florida Aquarium was the first to reopen, but it’s operating at 13 percent capacity for health and safety reasons. Other aquariums are opening at 25 percent capacity. Reopening will help the struggling institutions, but it won’t alleviate the financial stresses from their closures. And the hardest-hit are those that have been closed the longest and see no opening date in sight.

These spaces desperately need state and federal financial assistance to continue their conservation initiatives. We cannot afford to let these long-term conservation programs fail.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.