When it comes to the welfare of fish and aquatic invertebrates, the focus is traditionally on the group and not on the individual. Focusing on the increasingly important role of longevity and welfare in aquarium collections sustainability is shining a spotlight on ways facilities are getting to better know and understand their animals.
The idea of re-evaluating welfare in aquatic collections is a newer conversation that sprung up from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ effort to assess welfare covering each individual animal in a zoo and aquarium. The Aquatic Collections Sustainability Committee developed a four-pronged approach to improving aquarium sustainability by focusing on ethical acquisitions, larval programs, sustainable management (institutional collection plans), and welfare and longevity.
“Sometimes when we think about welfare issues, it’s through the lens of ‘something’s wrong and we need to make massive corrections.’ In our AZA context, we’re interested in taking a pause and seeing if we’re where we want to be,” said Dr. Leigh Clayton, vice president of animal care at the New England Aquarium in Boston, Mass. “Good welfare ensures animals are thriving, which is integral to every AZA facility’s purpose.”
There are five welfare domains: nutrition, environment, health, behavior, and mental wellness. As a whole, facilities are well versed and have an innate understanding for what constitutes welfare for terrestrial animals. Now, the priority for this committee is to understand how staff should address these areas with aquatics in mind.
Nutrition looks at what food is actually being eaten, evidence of feeding, quality of food (how it’s prepared, presented, and stored), foraging opportunities available for the species, and growth rate.
Environment involves habitat, décor, water quality, light spectrum, water flow, and turbulence, among other things. It also evaluates the impact of external factors like noise and vibrations.
Health addresses disease or injury, how animals are coping with any medical management, and whether there’s a difference between being ill and feeling ill. It’s easy to overemphasize the health category and get bogged down in measuring physiological data, which is useful—but if a facility wasn’t already collecting that data to use for comparison purposes, they’ll get more welfare information by looking at the big picture.
Behavior involves appearance (color, condition, posture, position), respiration, reproduction, and social activities.
“I think social groupings and mental wellness is a newer conversation for some folks,” said Clayton. “We want animals engaging in a variety of natural behaviors that allow for opportunities to use their bodies and brains in ways that help them be physically and mentally healthy.”
How do you evaluate the mental and social wellbeing of each individual fish in a large school?
According to Dr. Linda Penfold, director of South-East Zoo Alliance for Reproduction and Conservation (SEZARC), the answer is simple: by taking the time to watch very closely. Aside from comparing behavior to species norms, look for relaxed body language, a level of curiosity and comfort in exploring, and some level of decision-making and control over their environment—like keeping foraging fish stimulated by allowing them to forage and hunt for their food. Making sure one animal isn’t being bullied or pushed into undesirable areas of their habitat is important to note, too. Keeping fish stimulated is important for their mental health. In short, it comes down to imagining the fish’s life through its perspective.
“People may perceive aquatic animal welfare considerations as lower on the taxonomic scale because we don’t know enough about how they respond or what they do,” said Penfold. “The idea that an invertebrate can play is astounding. When you learn about things like that, generally speaking, we are grossly underestimating the abilities and overall welfare of our aquatic species because we don’t fully understand them and need to study them more.”
Seattle Aquarium in Seattle, Wash., focused on choice and control in their population, since those aspects impact a creatures’ mental health. Each creature at the Aquarium is given the chance to choose and control their shelters, substrates, social contact, temperature and light gradients, rest opportunities, enrichment, and interactions with people. They also receive positive reinforcement training to help accomplish this.
“Choice and control are basic needs for animals. We know from other species that if they’re in a punishing environment, we see learned helplessness, we see aggressive behavior (proactively or preemptively), and neophobia,” said Clayton.
The next challenge in aquatic welfare is documenting it and uncovering patterns. A significant amount of documentation has always lived inside caretakers’ heads, according to Penfold. SEZARC used the tablet-based tool Zoo Monitor to note how much of the tank their sand tiger sharks were utilizing. In some cases, the sharks would actively avoid the “furniture”. Other times, when a corner was dominated by a different species, the sand tiger sharks’ access was restricted.
“It allowed us to understand that we think they have X amount of square feet, but actually they think their area is reduced,” said Penfold.
A collaboration between the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Md., and SEZARC looked at behavioral patterns in blacktip sharks, which are naturally found in groups in the wild. When the study noted some aggression, the next challenge was deciding who to remove from the group. If it was a male, another male had to go as well. Behavioral observations helped identify where each shark was on the pecking order, which sharks seemed to be close friends, and how to consider the potential social ramifications of removing each shark from the group.
The California Science Center in Los Angeles, Calif., uses Tracks to manage fish groups and enclosures by running reports that easily access mortalities, accession numbers, moves, and other data. According to Misha Body, director of husbandry, the software has continually adapted to problems that arise in the aquatic community and helps them minimize the time spent entering records.
New England Aquarium created a separate “Larval” collection in Tracks to include when the Aquarium is actively working to acquire 100 or more new animals through in-house propagation. The Aquarium uses Passive Integrated Transponders (PIT) tags when appropriate, and elastomer tags for visual identification when PIT tags won’t work. Image software helps conduct count estimates for their 450 aquacultured smallmouth grunts on exhibit. All of these tools help aquarists understand the longevity and population trends over time, and support the exhibit collection plan by helping to plan for annual larval production.
Ethical discussions are a constant companion to animal welfare. However, many people find the distinction between the two confusing.
“Sometimes we can trip ourselves up if we use the term ‘welfare’ but we’re really thinking of an ethical question. We get stuck in a binary yes/no. It’s helpful when we think ‘how?’” said Clayton. Asking whether it’s best to take animals from the wild and what mortality rate is acceptable in quarantine are judgment calls. “These are relationships we have with the animal, not the animal’s experience of its life.”
Ethics are a particular concern for larval rearing programs. Scientists don’t yet understand why some animals show early-stage deformities or whether this occurs in the wild. Once deformities exist in a facility setting, a slew of tough ethical questions abound. What is an acceptable number of malformed fish? Is it better to euthanize them or to rear them and keep them out of exhibits? What should be done if the fish can’t swim correctly and isn’t living its highest quality of life? The Aquatic Collections Sustainability Committee is working to develop guidelines and recommendations, since there isn’t a consensus yet.
“From an ethical perspective, it’s our obligation to do everything we can to avoid overproduction of fish and to determine how to manage deformities in fish. Therefore, collection planning is critical for institutions,” said Barbara Bailey, curator of husbandry and sustainability at the New England Aquarium. The Aquarium dedicates holding systems to one species, which allows them to protect welfare by adjusting environmental parameters, providing for specific nutritional needs, and monitoring behaviors closely through direct observation and technology. When these fish spawn, they know the exact species, and have more control over the quantity of the eggs they collect and raise. This minimizes the risk of overabundance.
The New England Aquarium chooses species in its larval program very deliberately. Species are evaluated based on ethical and sustainable sourcing and a series of criteria that includes welfare concerns. Fish spawn in exhibits all the time, and in many cases, the species can only be identified after the larvae are days old and resources have been invested in them. The Aquarium will be expanding its egg catalog, which contains information, photo identification, critical morphological features, and DNA sequencing.
In many facilities, welfare assessments have a positive impact on people. Successful aquatic collections rely on good communication between decision-making staff and care-taking staff, which also helps balance what guests will find engaging with sustainable management. Aquarists understand how realistic a projected plan is, since they provide the welfare each facility sets as its goal.
“One of the obstacles that many within the aquatic community have faced in establishing a welfare program within their institution is lack of buy-in due to fear. Often animal care professionals are so passionate about their work that they take it very personally if an animal’s well-being becomes a concern,” said Erin Shusterman, the aquatic husbandry manager at California Science Center in Los Angeles, Calif. At the California Science Center, they alleviated that fear by communicating and modeling up front that there wouldn’t be any retaliation for low scores and that the information they got from their assessments was to be used as a growth tool.
The team began to understand the value in data—its ability to help inform excellent care for animals and its ability to strengthen everyone’s sense of pride in their work. The goal was to create standards by which the animals’ welfare would be assessed, so staff members were encouraged to be candid and to listen to everyone. Because the process was co-created, it helped reinforce the team values and allowed everyone to embrace vulnerability, have the opportunity to give and receive feedback, and to work together as a team towards continuous improvement.
“I have been incredibly encouraged and impressed with how quickly and solidly aquariums have embraced monitoring welfare in their aquatic species overall,” said Penfold. “The real challenge will come next, with jellies and coral.”
Hero photo credit: ©John G. Shedd Aquarium
Hillary Richard is a writer based in Bloomfield, N.J.