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Marike Lauwrens
Sea for yourself: The ethics of aquariums

An aquarium: a tank filled with water in which marine creatures and plants are kept. But the question is, how ethical are aquariums?

Some people see no problem with aquariums, or zoos for that matter, and will rush to the nearest to admire our scaled friends from close-by. 

But this ethical debate is as deep as the ocean itself. So let’s take a look at the issue of aquariums. 


A trip to the aquarium is beautiful and splendorous, but it is our duty to check what condition the animals we are seeing are living under.

Original photo: by Jordy Meow from Pixabay is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Ethical extremes

If we take a group of people from different walks of life and put them in a room and pose a question about the ethics of aquariums, it will probably cause a heated discussion. 

In all likelihood, your perspective on aquariums will have been shaped by various media. This might include titles like Dolphin Take, Fish Tank Kings, Tanked, Blackfish, and Free Willy 1–4. 


Your perspective on aquariums may have been shaped by various media.

Original photo: “Right Up 0676” by mliu92 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Diving dilemma

A visit to the aquarium is a fond childhood memory for many. You might remember the dolphins gracefully jumping out of the water and being left with soaking clothes and a bag of smiles. 

Many aquariums showcase dolphins, penguins or seals to eager visitors. But how ethical is it to have animals on display for entertainment?

This question formed the basis of the 2013 documentary film, Blackfish. “Using animals for entertainment is the bottom of the ethical totem pole,” argues Gabriela Cowperthwaite, director of the film.


especially larger fish have traditionally been kept in captivity to be viewed, and often in unethical and cruel environments.

Original photo: by Paul Brennan from Pixabay is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Petting prohibited

Many acclaimed marine biologists admit that their love of the ocean started many years ago when they first visited an aquarium. 

Aquariums can be a place of wonder and discovery and many people advocate its purpose as a source of marine research, rehabilitation, and education. But there are aquariums that allow for activities such as animal petting.

While animal petting is very popular, it is not an ethical practice. As a sustainable development organisation working to advance United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (UN SDG) 14: Life Below Water, and Goal 15: Life on Land, we promote conservation and animal welfare best practice.


While dolphin petting is very popular within the tourist industry, it is not an ethical practice.

Original photo: by Alexas_Fotos / 20709 images from Pixabay is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

We do not endorse animal handling (except for necessary conservation activities). In addition to the possible dangers of getting close to wild animals, disturbing animals in this way interrupts their natural behaviour.

Sea for yourself

Each aquarium is different, and its level of ethicality should be considered individually. Before visiting an aquarium, ask yourself the following questions.

  • Does it support human entertainment in the form of dolphin, orca, seal or penguin shows?
  • Does the aquarium keep large mammals in their tanks? 
  • Does it support animal petting?

If you could answer “yes” to any one of the above questions, you should reconsider your visit to this aquarium. The well-being of the marine creatures and ecosystems should be our first priority. 


Each aquarium is different, and its level of ethicality should be considered individually


Ask if the aquarium provides opportunities for visitors to learn about the ethics of aquariums or the conservation activities it supports. If the answer is “yes”, that is a great sign!

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