Over the last decade or so, population sustainability has become a focus in Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities. For aquariums, this posed a complicated challenge. The Aquatic Collections Sustainability Committee (ACSC) was formed and Board-approved in 2019 to help AZA’s member facilities share information and guide ethical decisions when it comes to the care, longevity, and acquisition of different aquatic species.
“Zoos have been engaging in sustainability initiatives the past couple decades, and now there’s a big push for aquariums to do so as well. But the hurdle is that we’re talking about 3,500 species throughout aquatic collections with thousands of fish hatching at any given time. The infrastructure and effort that goes into those are huge. You have to have community buy-in and facility buy-in,” said Dr. Megan Brown, director of population management strategy at AZA.
Aquariums have largely been developing their own best practices for years, so the ACSC is eager to work with member facilities and create a network of shared information on sustainability topics.
“This isn’t an aquarium issue, it’s a zoo and aquarium issue because all of us have blended animal collections now,” said Adrienne Rowland, the director at Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Nev., who is also co-chair of the ACSC alongside Chris Dold, the chief zoological officer at SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment in Orlando, Fla.
The ACSC’s guiding principles fall into three main categories: sustainability, ethics, and responsibility. These include assuring acquisitions of fish and invertebrates are done in a humane, educated, legal, and renewable way that doesn’t harm the ecosystem and that acquisitions contribute to local communities when possible. At the forefront, the ACSC wants to assure each animal receives high quality care throughout its life.
Through its five strategic goals (ethical acquisition, animal welfare and longevity, sustainable management, larval programs, and communication), the ACSC hopes to get an overview of what is involved in truly sustainable aquatic collections.
The supply chain for sourcing fish varies tremendously, depending on location and company. A short supply chain is ideal, not only because aquariums can know for certain that a fish was caught ethically, but because the fish will be impacted as little as possible by the time it arrives at the aquarium.
According to George Parsons, curator at John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Ill., and leader of the Ethical Wild Acquisitions Working Group, sustainable collections will involve some wild-caught animals where it doesn’t make sense (or isn’t possible) to develop larval programs. Certain fish that produce millions of eggs in the wild would be easy to acquire sustainably. For those that can’t be, the hope is to either de-prioritize collecting that species, or to promote aquaculture and artisanal fisheries.
There are cultural and economic considerations in fish acquisitions, since collecting fish is a significant economic driver for certain rural coastal areas around the world. It’s a balance between keeping those economies going but also working with people to make sure they’re using the most responsible and sustainable practices possible. By working with local people who collect responsibly and ethically, aquariums can continue supporting local economies while promoting sustainability. Project Piaba in Brazil, in conjunction with the New England Aquarium in Boston, Mass., is widely hailed as a success story when it comes to sustainability. Project Piaba has helped build a successful municipality in Brazil along the Rio Negro by raising cardinal tetras.
The ACSC is working towards a uniform reporting and testing process for supply chains, which doesn’t exist currently. The goal is to engage with everyone at every step of the chain to make sure that they are meeting the ACSC’s sustainability ethics and to assure they are collecting fish with sustainable wild populations. Cyanide fishing is still prevalent in certain areas, so ensuring that fish are caught in the safest ways possible is a top concern.
“We’re hoping to ascertain what fish we all bring in, what times of the year are best to bring fish in, and whether there are better countries to bring in from. We can also coordinate the transports and acquisitions between ourselves and maybe we can pool our communal powers together to strengthen our voice,” said Parsons.
The primary goal of the Animal Welfare and Longevity Committee is to create a species database that lists life expectancy and other relevant statistics for fish, since there is little data. This way, aquariums can understand how long a fish will be part of their collection and judge the success of their animal husbandry tactics. If fish live long, thriving lives in aquariums, it will cut down on the need for new fish.
Since aquariums know their aquatic animals best and understand their ideal environments, the ACSC will be issuing a member survey to collect information for the database, with the hopes of having an early draft of the database up and running by the end of the year.
“For us and for the animal’s welfare, this means trying to sustain or preserve the animals we have in our collections for as long as we possibly can,” said Sandy Trautwein, vice president of husbandry at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif., and head of the Animal Welfare and Longevity Committee.
“It’s so important to take a hard look at the practices that we’ve relied upon for so many years and to put an eye towards changing significant portions for sustainability,” she added.
Trautwein and her colleagues are also working on a quarantine resource center. Fish require a quarantine period after arrival, which is often a delicate phase made even more difficult when the fish has had a long journey through a complex supply chain.
Plenty of the research and published reports ACSC uses come from one of its founding members, Andrew Rhyne, who is part of the research faculty at the New England Aquarium. Rhyne has been working on trade issues and sustainability for 15 years, and on aquaculture techniques for 20 years. He believes that the ACSC can do for the aquarium supply chain what sustainable seafood advisory boards like Seafood Watch have done for the consumer food chain.
“With everything that’s happened with wildlife lately, people are rightfully more concerned about sustainability issues and where animals are coming from. The public asks about that more now than they ever have. You can’t paper this stuff over. If you can’t tell people where your animals came from and that they were ethically sourced, then you have a serious problem with your mission,” he said.
“This is exactly where seafood was ten years ago: unregulated except for some species that come from managed fisheries or CITES-listed species with quotas assigned to them,” said Rhyne. “In an ideal world, public aquariums would drive institutional change in the entire system. I think they can do it. They’ve done it in seafood. There’s nothing that says institutions can’t do that in other areas.”
By creating larval programs and determining which fish can be raised using aquaculture, aquariums can share their research as well as their actual collections with each other. The ACSC’s larval program goal is to help coordinated collaborations between institutions in organic ways.
“Not all wild collecting is a negative. There are some species that we can continue to extract from the wild that will benefit the local economy and artisanal people. This is to supplement and help demonstrate our dedication to making sure aquariums exist 50 years down the road,” said Hap Fatzinger, director at North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher in Kure Beach, N.C., and the head of the ACSC larval program.
Over the years, AZA-accredited aquariums have been successful in rearing dozens of fish species on site. While there are a lot of unknowns around many species, a larval program to offset wild collections looks very promising.
“We’re taking all the knowledge and skills we have and applying those to more successfully rearing offspring for future displays so that we won’t have to remove those animals from the wild. We haven’t been as focused as a larger collective group as we can be and need to be,” said Fatzinger.
In the immediate future, the ACSC will be distributing surveys to collect general data and gain a better understanding of aquariums’ animal population needs. The surveys will ask about current larval programs, the interests and expertise of the facility, current animal populations, welfare and longevity, and how facilities have been acquiring fish. A second survey that addresses the public-facing side will follow, to gage the public’s perception, general knowledge, and interest in sustainable populations.
Once the survey information is analyzed, ACSC members will meet with importers and discuss sustainable business models. Since there is so little data available on fish life expectancy and reproduction in managed care, reputable importers have expressed interest in working together and understanding how this data applies to their business practices.
Ultimately, the ACSC’s measures of success with these surveys will be in knowing what facilities’ collectives needs for species are, what animals they’re able to rear healthily, and which facilities have unlocked the secrets of different species’ reproduction.
Down the road, the ACSC hopes to develop a toolkit for aquariums with educational materials explaining each phase of sustainable collections. Studies show that guests who visit facilities are more likely to have a home aquarium, so educating them about the supply chain and responsible fish collections can help make a holistic difference for overall sustainability.
Hillary Richard is a writer based in Bloomfield, N.J.