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To aquarium or not to aquarium

Published on 8/6/2022
Last week members of the community gathered to watch Nausicaa, Staging the Oceans’ Biodiversity, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County and Wabash College. The film presents the creation of Europe’s largest aquarium tank, in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France. The tank is 197 feet long, 115 feet wide, 26 feet deep, and holds 2.6 million gallons of water.

The goal of this aquarium is to recreate the environment around Malpelo, a UNESCO world heritage island off of the coast of Colombia. Aquariologists photographed the underwater environment around Malpelo so they could sculpt rock-like formations in the Nausicaa aquarium, and to record the species of coral and fish that live there. As Malpelo is a UNESCO site, no fishing is allowed within 62 miles. Thus, the aquariologists had to collect their animals elsewhere in the world: Portugal, Australia, Kenya, and a fishery in Vero Beach, Florida.

This led to one point of discussion following the film: are the aquariologists really recreating Malpelo if the animals came from elsewhere in the world? Is a Kenyan or Australian hammerhead shark really the same species as one from Malpelo? The aquarium is filled with Atlantic sea water, but the Atlantic Ocean is saltier than the Pacific. Presumably, animals would evolve differently in a different environment.

The audience was also concerned with predators placed in the same (albeit enormous) tank with prey. All of the animals are fed daily, but won’t the predators still be predators? Well-fed house cats still chase mice. In nature, the predators keep down the number of prey. Then if there are too few prey, the predators die off. But at Nausicaa the predators are still fed. How will the numbers of prey be maintained?

This led to discussion of the aquariologists having trained each species of animal to recognize their specific symbol when it was their time to be fed. The manta rays were fed from a red bucket. The hammerhead sharks were fed from a white tube. Another animal’s cue was a checkerboard. Another’s was a yellow striped tube. The symbols, plus the daily feeding, trained the animals to wait their turns and not fight over the food. The food was dropped over the side of the aquarium, not fed directly from a diver. Thus, the animals (especially the sharks!) did not learn to associate divers with food, and divers who needed to do repairs or clean the windows were left in peace.

The perennial question, whether it is alright to trap animals in aquariums or zoos, generated quite a bit of discussion. Some felt that it was not right, especially placing predators and prey in the same tank. One analogy was made with the Pope on his recent visit to Canada to apologize for the Catholic Church having taken First Nations peoples from their homes and families, to “give them a better life”. Is this aquarium really much different?

Others felt that the scientific findings justified the creation of the artificial ocean environment. At one point in the film the aquariologists are quoted as saying that they were creating “a living picture to make visitors dream”. How many little children will visit Nausicaa and want to grow up to be aquariologists, naturalists, or environmentalists?

For the next, and final, Green Issues film for the summer of 2022, we move from the ocean’s depths to the Arizona desert, with Into the Canyon. The filmmaker and a friend hike the 750-mile length of the Grand Canyon, exploring human endurance, the ecology of the canyon, and the threats that it faces from climate change and human intervention.

Please join us at 7 p.m. Wednesday in Hays Hall 104, Wabash College.