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Fish in Captivity: The Moral Issue

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Have you ever stopped to think whether what you're doing as an aquarist is right or wrong from the point of view of morality? Have you ever been questioned about this? Would you know how to defend your position? This is a complex issue that needs to be resolved within the mind of each individual, since it involves many cultural, religious and family upbringing aspects.

Throughout the world we will find all types of people, from those who couldn't care less if a fish is being mistreated, after all "it's just a fish", to those who sanctify any animal as a 'divine' creature and therefore it is not man's place to rule over the life and death of it. Between these two extremes there's a vast range of possibilities for you to position yourself morally. The problem is that many people end up forming their opinion or 'moral', leaning towards one direction or the other, without having a minimum amount of information to base it on or, worse yet, do it based on myths and downright wrong concepts. The moral dilemma of a responsible and concerned aquarist should actually be twofold:

1) In purchasing fish are we not supporting an area of activity that promotes exploitation of nature? 2) Does a fish maintained in captivity, with no freedom to go where it wishes, lead an unhappy life?

In this article I intend to expose a little of my own view on the issue, which obviously will tend towards responsible fishkeeping which after all is the purpose of this entire site, but I hope to also succeed in giving you a few less subjective elements to think about and allow you to draw your own conclusions.

Breeding vs. Collecting

To approach the first dilemma correctly, the first very important thing is to understand the ENORMOUS difference that exists between a fish born and raised in captivity, and a fish collected from nature. Unfortunately both types are sold without distinction in shops, so it's common that a hobbyist doesn't notice this important difference.

One must understand that in the case of commercial breeding, the fish have as much to do with nature and ecology as that chicken or pig that you ate for lunch today! This fish was BRED by us humans in aquariums or large-scale breeding tanks, with the specific goal of being sold to someone who hopes to obtain satisfaction in keeping a fish in the home aquarium, and in return generate income to the breeder and the merchant who sold it. The only difference between this fish and the chicken or pig is the final objective to which it's destined. In this aspect the ornamental fish should be regarded at the same level as domestic cats and dogs. I think they're even in advantage in comparison to chicken and pigs, except of course for those poor fish that end up in totally inappropriate home aquariums (the discussion about fishkeeping myths and what exactly is an appropriate aquarium for each species will be left for another article).

Fortunately, at least in the freshwater fishkeeping hobby, a very large portion of the species commonly found in shops are already bred in large commercial scale. Therefore aquarists wishing to position themselves morally at this point can fully enjoy the hobby by purchasing only species that are bred in captivity, leveling the hobby with the keeping of cats and dogs as already mentioned, with no impact on nature. A good fish shop will always be able to tell you which species available in the shop are captive bred and which are collected.

A very positive argument for those wishing to position themselves this way is there are already several species of fish that are seriously endangered and some are even extinct in nature, not because of excessive collecting but because of the reduction or destruction of their natural habitat by the advance of civilization in the name of 'progress' (read: deforestation, pollution, etc), and these species only continue to exist and have a chance to one day be reintroduced in nature due to their commercial breeding in captivity for the fishkeeping hobby!

In the case of marine fish, however, the general situation is inverted. A great majority of species are still collected from nature. We are still crawling in the slow process of understanding and developing techniques to breed marine fish in captivity, and therefore the level of responsibility and concern of the marine aquarist needs to be much greater.

This second case, of fish that belonged to the natural world and were collected for keeping in home aquariums, unquestionably affects nature in greater or lesser degree. Still, we should not immediately condemn the practice without first understanding a few important aspects. Careful studies are required to know if nature is being capable of replacing the loss without long-term damage to the ecosystem. This is what is called sustained development, a very contemporary term in almost all fields that make use of natural resource exploration some way or another.

The questionable practice occurs when the exploration (in our case, collecting of fish) is done excessively or uncontrolled (for instance during breeding season), which may lead certain species to decrease their population continuously until they face the risk of extinction. Luckily there are scholars, institutions and government organizations worldwide that are making serious and concrete efforts to understand the situation of each species and better regulate the collecting activity to guarantee sustained development with respect to them. The Age of Aquariums has even been consulted by the Brazilian agency IBAMA with this respect, and will always be available to help in whatever we can.

So, even if a fish is collected, as mentioned above, if this is done in such a way that nature is capable of long-term replacement of the said loss (nature has an extraordinary capacity to do so, all we need is common sense and not abuse her) then it's possible to solve the moral dilemma of exploitation of natural resources, and only resolve the moral dilemma concerning the quality of life for the fish living in captivity.

Freedom and Happiness

At this point a second very common confusion arises, mainly among laymen and radical conservationists, which is the booby trap of "anthropomorphism". This complicated word means to transfer upon an animal (or anything else) our human concepts, characteristics and values. Simplified for the case at hand, it's like this: we have a group of values, expectations, goals, etc, characteristic of the human race, and when these things are repressed or denied we become unhappy. Then, we look at an animal and if it seems to us it is being denied a value that for us humans is important, we automatically conclude that it can only be unhappy as well.

This is not necessarily true, we need to know whether that value or expectation is really important to the animal in question. Just to give a blatant example, imagine someone thinking that a dog must be unhappy because it only drinks water all its life, and was never allowed anything delicious like a soft drink or an orange juice.

In general, expectations in the life of animals are MUCH, MUCH less complex than humans. I remember seeing an American study on the behavior of dogs, that demonstrated the concept of "paradise" for a dog. Paradise seems to be no more than lying around all day doing absolutely nothing, all of its life, which for a typical human would be painfully frustrating in the long term.

Back to the fish in aquariums, it's important not to fall in the trap of imagining how *we* would feel if we were in the same situation as them, but rather to search for indicators that they are indeed having their own expectations reasonably met. This obviously isn't easy to identify, but in general I would say that, if a fish is being adequately fed, displays good health, has a normal interaction with its aquarium companions (maybe even forming pairs and breeding, but this is not a necessary requirement since it doesn't happen to all in nature either), and the aquarium is such that the fish is capable of normal development, then this fish is truly "happy".

I'm not trying to say that fish or any other animals are mere automatons or slaves of their instinct programming. Quite the contrary, as any fishkeeper with a few years of mileage, I can perfectly identify (without 'anthropomorphism') the presence of individual humors in many of the fish I keep, giving each one a distinct, unique personality characteristic of a superior being - intelligent and emotional. However, I repeat, despite the subject being current and controversial, it seems reasonable for me to suppose that fish in general have much simpler expectations than us: eat, rest, breed, and little else. In other words, a fish does not go from here to there in nature because it wishes to rejoice in its freedom and arbitrary will to do so, nor because it wishes to enjoy the trip while discussing with its companions the miracle of its existence. It goes from here to there because it wants to stay away from potential predators and find food, or maybe a companion. If the food and the companion are already right here and the predators are not, then great! Why go there? "Freedom" is very rational and human value, one must be very careful when determining whether it's transferable to an animal.

In conclusion, having already been through crises and even abandoned the hobby in the past because of moral dilemmas like this, based on the arguments presented in this article I have the conviction nowadays that my aquariums are such that my fish enjoy where they're living. I also have the conviction that the collective effort of responsible aquarists, in particular those with strong presence on the internet, is having a very measurable effect in the advancement of our hobby. What really matters is to have this concern in mind every day we keep our fish, and always do the very best possible to maintain or improve the conditions however we can.

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Flávia Carvalho, Amaury De Togni, Damian Jones and William Banik for suggestions that helped improve this text!

Reader Comments Comentário

Very well-thought-out essay, and one which I basically agree with. It certainly is absurd to think of fish happiness from an anthropomorphized perspective - as long as the tank is big enough for the fish to move comfortably in, is maintained properly and kept clean, provides some hiding areas in the form of driftwood, plants, etc., what more could a fish want? In the wild, a fish has to contend with the stress of predators, fluctuations in the availablitiy of food, possible pollution from deforestation, etc. - all stressors which are eliminated by the responsible fish keeper!

You do sort of avoid one conundrum: while captive breeding does reduce the impact of the hobby on wild populations, it also increases the risk of inbreeding and genetic stagnation within captive-bred populations...obviously, some sustainable harvesting is needed to refresh captive gene pools; the question is how to ensure/enforce the actual sustainability of the harvest.

Another ethical issue of fish keeping which has apparently gone unaddressed in the hobby, and with which I find myself personally struggling, is water use. One of the undeniable effects of global warming is the increasing desertification of the planet, with large segments of humanity being deprived of adequate supplies of potable water. In the face of this, how do we justify spending our water supply to provide captive fish with clean water? The only remotely valid response, that I can come up with, is that the water supply I access isn't available to those suffering anyway - a pretty weak excuse, I'm embarassed to say. Maybe people will think I'm being too politically correct - but they won't think that when desertification hits their own back yard, and our hobby becomes criminalized! I really think that this is an issue which is critical for our hobby to address.

Contributed by Mark F.

A rather unexpected series of events in the past few weeks led me to pursue the morality of aquariums from the perspective of water conservation, so I thought I'd add my two cents worth. We had a dry summer in Tennessee, and 2 months ago, the local water companies began passing water restrictions in the areas near (but not yet affecting) me. They said that if we didn't have some rain in the next five months, there would be dry resevoirs (last night ended five straight days of rain, with another week of rain predicted to begin in three or four days).

Anyway, I began to look at my household water usage when I heard of the restrictions. Most obvious is my 100 liter aquarium. Next, we have two people showering twice a day. Then comes three or four loads of laundry a week. And I can't forget the dish washer, two or three times a week. Also a humidifier (for health reasons) which consumes 8 to 10 liters per day. With this list, would it be significant to mention the 2 liters of coffee I drink every day? And the hand-washing, plate rinsing, cups of water, counters cleaned, toilets flushed...I might mention in my defense, that I refuse to wash my piece of junk car, but I've just exposed myself as a criminally callous water waster.

So back to the aquarium; Start with 100 liters capacity. Add to that a 10% water change every other week (thats 10 liters per week) and compare it with one shower, or even my coffee consumption. I feel I can safely say that an aquarium, no matter the size, will not appreciably affect the local supply of potable water.

Contributed by Mike

The subject of water use is moot for a number of reasons. First of all, with regards to Global Warming. To put it plainly, global warming is exactly that - global warming. The globe warms. While it is true that we see desertification in some areas, we also see increased precipitation in others. The phenomena basically produces sporadic and unpredictable changes in weather patterns on a large scale such that it is difficult to maintain our current level of development.

Water in and of itself is conserved either way. Think of your fish tank being like a mini-reservoir. In nature, water from a rainstorm or river cut-off collects in pools and eventually evaporates or drains off. The water in your aquarium is part of the same process. It flows into your house, is there for a while and when you do your water change it gets sent back into the rest of a system. The only difference is that it's been loaded with fish byproduct...and considering that there are fish living in naturally occuring bodies of water, it's hard to imagine that being too much of an issue.

The real issue of water use in terms of how it relates to the quantity of potable water lies in what is being added to the water when it re-enters the system. Does it have a buildup of toxic chemicals? Phosphates or nitrates? And if so, how is that issue being addressed? If you dump it directly into the water, then that becomes a problem for the same reason agricultural runoff is destroying our natural wonders (Everglades). If you put it into its proper place (garden/lawn, etc) it is allowed to serve the same purpose it does in nature, and indeed will be part of nature.

However, there is a global-warming related issue that I am struggling with. The lighting for the plants and the filter running draws power...a lot of it. The main culprit of global warming is the creation of greenhouse gases for the purpose of providing electricity. All these extra appliances use electricity. That issue needs to be resolved by our community.

Contributed by Bob Nodik

As a twist related to this excellent article: the Israeli Nature Preservation Authority does not allow the return to the Red Sea under their jurisdiction, fish removed to aquaria. Their claim is that insufficient research has been carried out to ascertain the fishes ability to re-acclimatize to the wild. I have first-hand knowledge of this as I was collared one evening releasing fish I had taken home to my marine aquarium to photograph.

Contributed by Laurence Lee Duman

I too have an issue with keeping fish as a hobby. My main concern is the impact on the environment of capturing fish and releasing non native fish and especially plants into our ecosystem. Living in Texas our water ways are choked with hydrea. The San Marcos River is a prime example of ecological disaster from the aquarium hobbyist. Aquarium plants and pleco fish are devastating the native fish, plants and eroding the banks. The aquarium hobbyist world should take a leading role in curtailing ecological damage.

Contributed by John Harrison

An interesting read. I would argue that well-kept fish are given freedom rather than have their freedom curtailed. Freedom from predators, disease (in the main), the battle for territory, natural disasters and famine. Regarding the moral issue of water usage: Aquariums do not starve anyone of water; we pay for our water, and we are entitled to use it how we please. The fact that an enormous amount of people in the world do not have access to clean water is a terrible thing in the 21st century, but it is not the fault of aquarium owners.

Contributed by Sam

As some have said, the issue of keeping fish relating to things like water usage - whether or not it's right to keep fish in areas where a drought is happening, for instance - is pretty well moot. Once you consider how much YOU as a hobbyist use on a daily basis (or even weekly), through things like laundry, cooking, toilet flushing, showering and similar sundry daily activities...what you would use for even some of the largest indoor aquaria available to the average person, like changing a third of the water in your tank once every week or two, is but a fraction. If you're so worried about water usage, maybe you should curtail YOUR water usage and not your pets. To me the bigger environmental impact, as someone mentioned, is the introduction of non-native species to natural waterways, snakeheads being a very popular news object in the USA, and rightly so. Apparently plecos in the deeper south USA is also an issue for some people. Here in Kentucky I have seen goldfish loose in some streams. Very small and limited areas where they are not likely to go far, but there nonetheless. As someone somewhere once said (maybe in a movie)...nature will find a way.

Contributed by Jeff

The main issue of morality is: virtually ALL captive wild caught marine fish die well before their natural lifespans. For almost all other captive wild caught animals the opposite is true: they live BEYOND their natural lifespans due to proper husbandry and possibly reduced stressors. This is so far from the case with the aquarium hobby that it's truly inhumane treatment. Consider this: yellow tangs can live for at least 35 years in the wild (recently discovered by a Hawaii researcher). According to State collection reports more than 2.3 million yellow tangs have been reported as collected/shipped by Hawaii collectors (the State estimates the true number to be more than double). What is the average captive lifespan of one of these wild caught fish? How many of you have or know of yellow tangs that are even 10 years old? Most wild caught captive animals gain lifespan while giving up freedom. Marine fish give up both. This is inhumane treatment - this is your moral issue.

Contributed by Renee

Just wanted to make a quick addition to the well written article on the moral dilemma of fishkeepping. I've enjoyed the aquariums in my homes for more than 40 years, currently I have three. They've relaxed me when stressed and befriended me when lonely. It's difficult for me to imagine not having fish in my home. That said, every water change done on my tanks, the waste water is used in my garden and shrubs. So not only do I have beautiful aquariums to enjoy, my yard looks pretty good too! Fish emulsion...great fertilizer and NO waste water!

Contributed by Berk Brown

Very interesting and profound subject. I feel it's going to become a topic of more consideration in the future as the use of all of our resources become subject to scrutiny. Something I find absent from the discussion is something which perhaps has the greatest impact on everyone, is determined on an individual basis, and is the farthest from anyone's mind...the consumption of energy. How much power to keep how many liters warm, clean and well lit? (Not to mention the manufacture of all the accessories). The fish have it made, assuming we let nature dictate what is sustainable (destruction of reefs is not!). Rain will always fall, somewhere (if you live in a desert an aquarium is probably not a good idea). I believe as with everything else common sense and good judgment goes a long way to figure out what is appropriate (or if a fish is content). The problem is when we decide we're going to pursue a course which is solely aesthetic, everything is justified in it's pursuit and within it's context. However, from the outside it's purely self indulgent. Eventually, the question of energy consumption will be THE determining factor of morality. I have kept aqariums all my life. Only recently has the global impact of energy consumption become a topic of consideration. As long as we have it, everything is fine and dandy. We all know what the answer is, but don't have the willpower to change. Pass the fish flakes...

Contributed by Bryan Hainey

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