Aquarium fish 'suffer abuse and ill-health'

Campaigners reveal ill-treatment of captive marine creatures. Severin Carrell reports

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Thousands of fish and animals in Britain's aquariums are suffering sickness, distress and physical abuse, a damning report by animal rights campaigners has revealed.

Thousands of fish and animals in Britain's aquariums are suffering sickness, distress and physical abuse, a damning report by animal rights campaigners has revealed.

The investigationfound that dozens of aquariums keep animals such as rays, sharks, puffer fish, crabs and squid that are scarred and deformed, behave abnormally, or are routinely mishandled by staff and visitors.

Video footage released by the Captive Animals' Protection Society (Caps), which commissioned what is thought to be the first such investigation in the UK, shows a starfish which had lost a limb through being manhandled, children throwing diseased crabs into pools, sharks being held out of their pools to be touched, and staff forcing rays to swim out of the water to feed.

The society also claims that few aquariums are involved in genuine marine conservation work, challenging a key marketing claim by most of the businesses involved. Caps alleges that more than 80 per cent of aquarium animals are caught in the wild and are very rarely used in breeding programmes to save endangered species.

The allegations, published tomorrow in a report called Suffering Deep Down, are a serious blow to the reputation of Britain's aquariums, which are key attractions in many seaside towns. They now attract millions of visitors each year, and the number of aquariums has leapt from one in the late 1970s to an estimated 55 today.

The Caps findings, which are to be investigated by the Government's animal welfare experts, have been backed by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Its marine scientific officer, Laila Sadler, likened the plight of aquarium animals to past exposés of ill-treatment and ill-health at zoos. She said tens of thousands of fish die in British aquariums each year while thousands die in transit to them.

RSPCA experts, she said, "very frequently" see malnourished and ill fish at aquariums. Claims that they actively support marine conservation campaigns and scientific research are a "convenient veneer", she added. "There is a disposable attitude to these animals. We've moved on from it with zoos, but we're losing tens of thousands of fish every year in Britain. The costs to these animals are never, never exposed in these places."

The Caps investigation was carried out by zoologist Jordi Casamitjana, a former zoos expert for the Born Free Foundation set up by Virginia McKenna and Bill Travers. He visited 31 of Britain's 55 public aquariums undercover earlier this year and claims that:

* Rays and sharks in more than 20 aquariums showed abnormal behaviour such as "surface breaking", where they poke their heads above the water, often because they are "trained" to feed that way.

* Animals in three-quarters of aquariums were ill, deformed or scarred, particularly seahorses, squid, octopuses and rays.

* Only one species seen in these aquariums, a Humboldt penguin, is part of the European endangered species programme despite claims that these centres play a key role in conservation.

Caps claims these findings support its demands for zoos and aquariums to be banned, a policy that few conservation groups support.

The allegations were rejected by several of Britain's best-known aquariums, which insisted that they had played a key role in transforming public interest in marine conservation and were closely regulated.

Mark Oakley, a spokesman for the chain of six SeaLife aquariums, said their centres had an "animal welfare record second to none". This included employing vets, setting up an ethics committee and keeping careful records of ill-health incidents.

The company also ran the national seal sanctuary in Cornwall, which specialised in helping injured and stranded seals. Its centres, in towns such as Blackpool, Scarborough and Brighton, had attracted more than 350,000 signatures for petitions to save sea turtles in Greece and oppose the trade in shark fins.

He said that allegations that "surface breaking" by rays was abnormal was just "one interpretation" of their behaviour, though he added: "It would be silly for me to suggest that the creatures in our care don't sustain the occasional wound or injury or illness just as they would out in the open sea."

Sue Elaiho, a spokeswoman for Blue Planet in Cheshire and Deep Sea World in Fife, said its centres comply with the Zoo Licensing Act. "We take the care and welfare of our animals very seriously," she said.

The Deep in Hull has close links to marine biologists at the city's university, and Colin Brown, its chief executive, worked on North Sea conservation projects. He said official licensed inspections were designed to check on the points raised by Caps. He added: "There are no doubt good and bad aquariums, but the good that aquariums do in research, education and as ambassadors for the oceans is vital and should not be underestimated."

However, the Caps allegations are likely to shock many of Britain's leading marine conservation groups. Chains such as SeaWorld, Blue Planet and Blue Reef say they work with or support groups including Greenpeace, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) and the Marine Conservation Society (MCS).

The MCS said that properly run centres play a vital role in public education. However, Greenpeace confirmed that it had no direct ties at all to SeaWorld in the UK, and the WDCS said that it was now considering whether to break off all its ties to public aquariums.

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