New England Aquarium: Thoughts from an Observer
The New England Aquarium is a multi-story holding ground for all sorts of aquatic and even a small population of terrestrial life. It is supposedly a place of environmental protection, preservation, and education, but such a mission statement is little more than pleasant words on paper. After taking a thorough walkthrough of the entire establishment (or what the public was allowed to see) I began to second guess these ambitious motives.
At first glance, the aquarium appeared well-kept and the animals well-researched. There were small note cards plastered by each tank stating what was inside and a brief description of the organism’s life history. Here and there posters were placed describing the environmental importance of these organisms and what was (or was not) being done to protect and preserve them. Large flocks of people bustled about, bumping into each other to get the closest look at each animal and showing all of their friends. Most people were smiling, seemingly pleased by the situation at hand, as was I. Once I had completed an in-depth scan of the entirety of the exhibits, I began to focus on the one that most caught my interest: the flooded Amazon rainforest exhibit.
It was a freshwater exhibit, about ten feet long and seven feet high, with not much more than five and a half feet of water height. Though there was at least eight feet of depth to it, the water level significantly decreased towards the far end. Humidity was noticeably high because of a sheet of condensation on the glass above the water level. The water was shaded by a thick congregation of broad, waxy-leafed plants hanging a foot or so above, many of which were shriveled and browning. This was supplemented with fake hanging vines that drooped into the water, creating caverns and obstacles. A gentle but steady spray of water droplets was showering down through the foliage, stirring the surface water. Large fake tree trunks lined the sides of the display, stretching the entire height and taking up a significant portion of the space allotted for the animals inside. There was a bright light above the tank, but a comparatively small amount of this actually got through the décor and into the tank. Despite this, viewing was not impaired and I observed a hazy tint to the water and a noticeable amount of organic debris slowly floating about. The bottom of the exhibit was coated in a beige sand substrate with chunks of wood and other debris scattered about the surface of it.
The tank was rather heavily stocked, mainly with fish, but a couple of turtles were present as well. They all moved rather lethargically, lacking momentum and space to move. As a viewer, the tank seemed a bit too heavily stocked, there being at least 50 large fish in there. Among these were: Semaprochilodus taeniurus, Cichlasoma severum, Cichlasoma festivum, Uaru amphiacanthoides, Hypostomus plecostomus, Acarichthys heckelii, Potamotrygon motoro, Leporinus fasciatus, Satanoperca daemon, Hoplarchus psittacus, Chalceus macrolepidotus, Hypselecara coryphaenoides, Osteoglossum bicirrhosum, a humungous Phractocephalus hemilopter, two large Colossoma brachypomus, a couple of big Pseudodoras niger, and just three Pterophyllum scalare. I also noticed two Hyphessobrycon erythrostigma which were not labeled, and a few fish that were labeled but not present.
Soon after observing the exhibit and developing my own opinions, I started to look towards the public; seeing and hearing what other customers thought of this specific display. One of the first things I noticed was a man standing to the right side of the tank incessantly tapping on the glass (despite the sign kindly asking people not to do this), trying to get a C. brachypomus to move. The fish remained un-phased and continued not moving. I wondered why he insisted on irritating a seemingly content organism, but it was not an uncommon sight. People seem to think they can evoke some sort of reaction by doing this, and often can, but I doubt this is ever a positive reaction. In contrast, I also saw a mother scold her child for doing this same thing, fearing the child would scare the fish. As more and more people walked by I continued my observation, noting that the general theme of the people was either indifference or amazement. There were some customers that expressed sympathy or discontent though. One woman, after staring at the P. hemilopter for a few seconds stated: “he looks uncomfortable,” and continued to the next exhibit. The fish was large and tended to stay towards the front, most likely because there was even less room for movement towards the back. Many others commented on the size of the catfish, but few seemed concerned with the size of its habitat. Personally, I felt that it was inappropriate to have an animal of that size confined to such a small space. Even the C. brachypomus looked rather large for the exhibit and did not move much at all. A child naively asked: “is he frozen?”, though I cannot blame him for wondering. Another customer noticed the high number of fish inside saying: “a lot of them in there, kinda small.”
Personally I agree with that thought, the aquarium is housing too many large animals in a much too insignificant volume of water. It was also disheartening to see a schooling fish: Hyphessobrycon erythrostigma, kept in pairs. This disrupts their natural behavior and makes them insecure and skittish. Visitors concerned with the animals’ well-being made up a minority of what I observed, and it seems that even less of them took the time to read the prepared note cards to learn a little bit about these animals. It seems as if the public remains vastly unaware of what aquariums are doing (or trying to do) and the care requirements of the animals. It was reassuring to see workers at the aquarium at least trying to educate people in areas such as the touch tanks and the elasmobranch exhibit. Perhaps the mission statements of aquariums will be carried through with more proficiency in the future.