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Fish have been raised in captivity since at least 2300 B.C.E., when people raised them for entertainment and to satisfy their intellectual interests. In addition, animals, shellfish, and plants have been kept as part of aquariums. In the 1800s, home aquariums became very popular in England. As interest spread, many people journeyed to the nearby English coasts in order to gather fish, plants, and other creatures. These were then kept in the available containers that constituted the aquariums of the day. Soon, attention turned to the fresh waters for aquarium specimens. Many homes became supplied with a lake in a glass bowl with specimens taken from local streams and lakes. Businesses began selling aquariums and aquarium supplies, aiding the growth of aquarium keeping. By the end of the 1800s, merchant ships were carrying tropical or other exotic species of fish and aquarium species from all over the world to supply home aquariums. Books were written on species of sea and fresh water fish, plants, and other living organisms. By the 2000s, large producers of goldfish, tropical fish, snails, and other aquatic creatures were marketing the creatures in specialty aquarium supply outlets.
Successfully keeping a healthy home aquarium requires equipment – an aquarium tank, tank cover, water filter, lighting, heater, and thermometer. A home aquarium should approximate the aquatic environment of the fish that will live in the tank, with rocks, gravel, sand, wood, and plants. Tropical fish, saltwater fish, or temperate-climate fish have different habitat requirements. Water chemistry is crucial if the fish and other aquatic creatures are to flourish. The filter supplies air to oxygenate the water. The heater maintains a constant water temperature that reduces stress on the aquarium’s inhabitants. Proper feeding and cleaning is also crucial to maintaining a healthy aquarium.
As interest in home aquariums grew in the 1800s, large public aquariums were opened in the Gardens in Boston, Massachusetts, Germany, Austria, and elsewhere. Public exhibitions of the watery world of lakes, rivers, and oceans generated enormous interest. Many of these original aquariums, as well as some operating today, were built as places of entertainment for the public and as commercial enterprises for their owners. There are now several hundred great public aquariums around the world. Most, such as the Georgia Aquarium (Atlanta) and the Long Beach Aquarium (California), are places of entertainment, education, and research. They require millions of dollars to build and to maintain. They are usually a cooperative effort between foundations, civic boosters, state and local governments, universities, schools systems, and marine or aquatic research bodies.
Some of the great aquariums are organized around a theme. The Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Osaka (Japan) Kaiyukan Aquarium are focused on Pacific Ocean creatures and plants. Both have been built on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. The Monterey Bay Aquarium pumps in ocean water from the Pacific and circulates it through their display tanks in order to keep the water chemistry and the environment as natural as possible. The water is filtered in the daytime to remove impurities, so aquarium patrons can clearly see the octopus, sharks, stingrays, sea otters, aquatic plants, and fish. At night they use unfiltered seawater to nourish the exhibits in a manner similar to the wild. Other public aquariums have been built around a different theme. The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga is a freshwater aquarium, organized around the theme of aquatic creatures in the Tennessee River. As patrons walk down a four-story ramp, they pass exhibits that trace the course of the Tennessee River from its origin high in the Appalachian Mountains until it meets the Gulf of Mexico, where its saltwater exhibits are displayed.
Many factors contribute to the continued success of public aquariums. Crucial to success are its volunteers, who supply an eager, unpaid workforce. Dedicated volunteers serve as docents, teaching visiting school children about the creatures and plants on display. Other volunteers, wearing scuba equipment, enter the tanks to clean them. Without the vast number of volunteer hours, the educational and research services of their aquarium could not exist. One of the favorite exhibits in the public aquariums is the seals, sea otters, or other mammals at feeding time. The animals seem to be trained to do tricks by their handlers, when in reality the “tricks” are used to measure their responses, or to prepare them for detailed physical exams by a veterinarian as needed. The modern aquariums conduct research on oceanic problems such as sterility in whales. They also have programs for breeding the specimens on exhibit, which enhances the survival of some species and provides a way for restocking exhibits. Surpluses can also be traded or shared. With the decline of marine life caused by overfishing or pollution, the public aquariums are promoting good resource stewardship. They are also educating the youth in ways to care for the waters of the planet.
Home aquariums can create ecological problems if unwanted specimens are dumped into local fresh water bodies and become invasive species. Critics of aquariums also suggest that many ocean-roving species (including great white sharks, for example, and many sea mammals) should not be kept in captivity, and that the central purpose of aquariums, like zoos, is generating revenue, rather than meaningful conservation or education. Most major breakthroughs in understanding aquatic species, they point out, are not made through observation in captivity, but instead in situ, seeing species in the context of their larger environment. Despite these criticisms, the number and distribution of aquariums is expected to increase greatly in the next century.
- Bernd Brunner, The Ocean at Home:An Illustrated History of the Aquarium, by Ashley Marc Slapp (Princeton Architectural Press, 2005);
- Nora Deans, Monterey Bay Aquarium: The Insider’s Guide (Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation, 2005);
- Peter W. Scott, The Complete Aquarium: A Practical Guide to Building, Stocking, and Maintaining Freshwater and Marine Aquariums (DK Publishing, 1995).