This past Friday, a 3.5 meter great white shark died at Okinawa Churaumi aquarium in Japan. The shark, which was accidentally caught in a net last Tuesday, was taken to the aquarium for exhibition before dying less than three days later. The aquarium is investigating the shark’s cause of death, though it is most likely due to starvation seeing as how the great white did not eat after being placed in captivity.
The transition from ocean life to captivity can be very stressful for almost all fish, marine invertebrates, and marine mammals. It’s very likely that the stress of being captured and moved to a relatively miniscule tank played a significant role in the great white’s death. Stress can lead to behavioral changes, such as a decrease in feeding activity or a refusal to feed altogether. Although the shark appeared to be healthy when brought to the aquarium, it may also have sustained some internal injuries during its capture. The bottom line, though, is that we don’t know too much about great white sharks and therefore we shouldn’t be surprised it didn’t survive long in captivity. Marine animals are incredibly sensitive to slight changes in temperature, pH, and other living conditions. The stress of being relocated into artificial habitats, no matter how carefully designed, can often be too much for these animals.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this story is that it could have been avoided. The shark, to the best of our knowledge, did not need to be brought to the aquarium. The shark was also immediately put on display, when it should have been placed in a suitable observation tank until the aquirium and scientists could agree on a plan of action. After all, Monterey Bay Aquarium tried keeping great whites in captivity a few years back and failed. Okinawa Churaumi aquarium should have reached out to these individuals to design a safer and more suitable habitat for great whites if it had planned on introducing them into their exhibits.
And that right there touches on the key misstep: the aquarium did not plan on this. They jumped on an opportunity to create an exhibit that would satisfy public curiosity at the expense of the animal on display. Great white sharks are large, highly migratory marine predators that have a long lifespan and are vulnerable to extinction, according to the IUCN. You don’t just throw them in a tank that’s a fraction of the size of their habitat and hope things work out for the best. The decision to put a great white shark in captivity is not one that would be beneficial for the individual shark or the species as a whole. However, those that decide to venture down this path should at least do the species the courtesy of thoroughly planning and researching these exhibits. After all, we’re responsible for the large majority of shark deaths. As much as conservationists like to (truthfully) point out that the killer shark stereotype inspired by Jaws is a horrible myth, the inverse of that message is unfortunately very accurate; right now, humans are a shark’s worst nightmare. Enough damage is being done to them in the open ocean, we can’t afford to be killing them in aquariums as well.
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