Bursting the Aquarium Bubble

Aquariums might seem like underwater wonderlands, but building a new one comes at a cost.

Yuriko Nakao / Reuters

The United States is experiencing a new wave of aquarium enthusiasm. Over the past few years, groups in Detroit; St. Louis; Scranton, Pennsylvania; Memphis; Cape Canaveral, Florida; and New York City have proposed or started construction on large aquariums. Springfield, Missouri, and Shreveport, Louisiana, have recently opened aquariums. Boosters for these spaces are selling them as conservation initiatives that will create jobs and bring in revenue—alternatives to sports stadiums and shopping districts meant to revitalize downtrodden downtowns.

But the history of aquariums tells a different story. In the earliest public aquariums, tanks were sparsely populated with somewhat mundane species. These institutions started as traveling fishery exhibits: The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair contained some of the first tank displays. The state of Pennsylvania fashioned a grotto with glass jewel boxes lining a dark hallway that was illuminated from above. The residents—trout, catfish, and others—had been sent via specialty train.

Enthusiasm for Pennsylvania’s exhibit was high, with many visitors returning several days in a row to walk through the grotto. Even after the fish started dropping dead because of excess lime, aluminum, and heat, the vacant tanks attracted crowds that came to marvel at the new technology.

These early exhibitions were successful enough that seven years later, the city of Philadelphia converted the traveling tanks into a stationary aquarium at Fairmount Park. One of the stars was a giant snapping turtle.

Philadelphia’s aquarium was part of a small but rapidly growing community of large public aquariums in the United States, including the Woods Hole Science Aquarium in Massachusetts (opened in 1885), the New York Aquarium (1896), and Detroit’s Belle Isle Aquarium (1904). Visitors were more concerned with wonder than education, and tanks usually contained local species, the occasional rescued family goldfish or donated lobster, and tropical fish. The aquarium keepers themselves had little interest in conservation. As aquarists developed the craft of holding aquatic organisms captive, many of the fish under their care died. In 1917, the Philadelphia aquarium received 663 fish for exhibition; by the end of the year, 454 had died.

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Unlike zoos, which relied on specialty species such as tigers and elephants, early aquariums showed relatively common species—it was the very act of seeing underwater that drew visitors. By 1920, the earliest American aquariums had banded together to collect tropical fish for exhibition. Starting around 1915, a representative from the New York Aquarium traveled twice a year to Key West, Florida, where he collected a wide array of species. That same year, the assistant director and tropical-exhibits collector Louis Mowbray brought 148 animals from Key West to Detroit, including squirrelfish, spiny lobster, stone crab, a hawksbill turtle, two species of moray eel, and three of grouper.

The earliest aquariums had little concern for the impact their collecting might have on the health of a species or ecosystem. Charles Townsend, who became the second director of the New York Aquarium in 1902, knew firsthand through his work with the U.S. Fish Commission that the number of marine mammals was depleted in the wild. This did not stop him from seeking out porpoises, seals, and sea lions along the Atlantic Coast for exhibition. One of the last known Caribbean monk seals, declared extinct in 1952, spent the end of its life on display at the New York Aquarium.

Townsend never thought to use the aquarium as a space for mammal conservation, but he was not entirely inured to the decline in marine populations. In 1929, he imported some of the last Galápagos tortoises to aquariums and botanical parks around the United States and the Caribbean in an effort to save the lumbering giants from extinction. Until his death, Townsend kept close records of the tortoises, moving them to locations that he felt would have luck maintaining and growing captive populations. The year after he died, the first Galápagos tortoises bred in captivity hatched at the Bermuda Aquarium, and in the past decade, the surviving Townsend tortoises were returned to the Galápagos as part of the ongoing conservation initiative.

Through the years, aquariums have done more of this work, becoming integral to conservation initiatives by studying specimens in captivity and funding field research to help maintain endangered species. Established public aquariums are conscious of their past role in marine degradation, and their captive-breeding initiatives, especially for popular species such as seahorses and clownfish, seek to decrease the impact of exhibit collecting on wild populations.

But these initiatives account for only a small number of the exhibits in large aquariums, and have not stopped debate about the impact of collecting on wild populations. Earlier this year, Moody Gardens, a Texas aquarium, collected a variety of fish from a popular snorkeling area in Palm Beach County, Florida, prompting public outcry. A legal battle in Hawaii has resulted in the closure of some reefs for collectors, but has shifted the impact of collecting to foreign reefs, which are not as well managed.

Creating an artificial underwater environment is still a technological and scientific challenge, with limited initial conservation value. Current aquariums took years to develop the resources required to perform effective conservation; new aquariums will not have the ability to develop these initiatives for years, if ever. If they fail, the extraction of marine riches, required for setup, goes to waste. While many of aquariums’ earliest problems have been solved—we no longer see empty tanks—many new builds are doomed to failure, squandering monetary and natural resources in the process.

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Architects and construction groups design aquariums, but aquarists must make the spaces functional. Often, aquariums’ most popular exhibits, such as mammals or sharks, prove the trickiest to maintain. Keeping sharks in captivity sounds great, but doing so takes specialized knowledge. The Dubai Aquarium, one of the largest tanks in the world, experienced several shark casualties before opening in 2008. The aquarists eventually worked out the optimum number of species for the tank, but other aquariums struggled longer with these issues. The Jerusalem aquarium, a 30-tank, $28.5 million building originally set to open in May 2017, delayed its opening after the loss of many exotic fish and two sharks. Some aquariums continue to try to keep great whites in captivity, with limited success and an almost 100 percent mortality rate.

The stress of acquisition and maintenance often leads to financial struggle. Originally operated by the City of New York, the New York Aquarium has been managed and funded by the Wildlife Conservation Society (formerly the New York Zoological Society) since 1902 due to financial strain; the City continues to provide electricity and water, while the Wildlife Conservation Society pays for upkeep and exhibition acquisition. Other early aquariums had to develop similar cost-sharing measures between private organizations and taxpayers. In this century, the Denver aquarium, which opened to much fanfare in 1999, declared bankruptcy in 2002 because of defaults on building loans. (It was purchased by Landry’s, a hospitality company, and reopened in 2003.) More recently, the newly opened Shreveport Aquarium has struggled with almost $500,000 in unpaid construction debt. Many of these spaces are subsidized by tax breaks and bonds, to be paid back when an aquarium becomes profitable. But too often, this goal is not realized. As economic-development projects, aquariums are risky.

In the 21st century, entering an aquarium can still conjure a sense of amazement, but for different reasons. I recently walked around the harbor near a public aquarium and saw not fish, but an enormous amount of plastic garbage. Entering the exhibit space, I was struck by the intense beauty of these model environments. There is wonder in seeing so many fish in one place—a protected place—when a reef dive today is more likely to reveal a world in distress. The sense of awe that aquariums can evoke should be mixed with an acknowledgment that the environments we see need saving—sometimes from our desire to see and touch them.

The Fairmount Aquarium in Philadelphia didn’t survive. The cost of maintenance was too much for a financially struggling city; when the call came to update the aquarium to more modern standards, it folded in 1962. The rash of aquariums currently being contemplated or built will eventually face these same concerns, and many will fail. But these spaces will have taken their toll, seizing resources from struggling ecosystems, both human and marine, without the ability to fully give back. And when they close, they will leave even larger holes in those fragile environments.