Is Keeping An Aquarium Cruel?

Some would state straightaway that it is and others that it isn’t. Guessing the identity of who belongs to which answer doesn’t take a great deal of thought. The two obvious groups are those who are adamant about ‘leave nature as it is’ and guess who, marine aquarists. Of course there are many others with an opinion on the subject.

Really the whole procedure of equipping and stocking has to be considered – the purchase of suitable equipment for the aquarium then the collection of fish and corals etc from the wild reef, their transportation, the period they are kept in a retail store and finally the delivery to the home aquarium. It’s to be hoped that nowadays prior to delivery to the home aquarium all is well, with good practices safeguarding the well being of the livestock. We all know that this isn’t always the case but things have improved a lot and continue to do so.

So the aquarium then, what alarms some is the size. The aquarium could be a small nano or a very large ten foot but they are all miniscule compared to the reefs. We measure our volumes in cubic feet, the seas and oceans are in cubic miles! How can it not be cruel to place fish etc in such a tiny environment?

Many of us want to be involved with nature. Take gardeners for example, they have flowers, bushes and trees that have come from all around the world. They strive to create for their own and others enjoyment a patch of beauty, be this geometrical or more random. So it is with the marine aquarist, though it is best to omit the word geometrical with aquariums as often the only part this applies to is the aquarium itself.

It is to be hoped that the novice marine aquarist sets out with a determination to ‘get it right’. Even with this the end result is not always as hoped. However, to get it right requires consideration and the only way to be able to effectively consider is with research. This is where the first ‘cruel’ appears, with the failure to research. Research could be by books, the internet or the retailer, though a combination could apply. Retailers need to sell to survive so caution is required. Having introduced the word caution this is the second requirement. Now we have research and caution, a really good base to start building. Research into the aquarium apparatus itself and the type of livestock that are desired and caution with the information obtained – not all is up to date and some is opinion based that is not always supported by general experience.

Failure to complete research into the aquarium apparatus itself is cruel because in the mid to long term the livestock are going to pay for inadequate equipment, possibly or probably by disease and death. This could seem rather black and white but it’s correct nevertheless.

If the aquarium is set up correctly for the type of livestock desired, that is fish only, corals only or mixed reef, then the newcomer is doing well. Why then should this be spoilt by incorrect stocking? It seems very illogical that efforts have been made to provide an adequate aquarium system and then these good initial actions ruined by bad stocking. This is the second ‘cruel’, incorrect stocking. With newcomers it is often caused by impatience, the word that covers so many bad issues with the marine hobby. Putting fish in with corals that the fish will damage, or corals that are incompatible with each other, or fish that will grow too large and/or become too aggressive is cruel and this is the fault of the aquarist as it is his or her decision. I could be a little more generous here and accept that some retailers are at fault by obtaining a sale without reasonable knowledge of the aquarist’s experience or aquarium system, but the prime fault is with the aquarist.

So the aquarist has done well, with research and a good aquarium system. The stocking is complete and that has also been done well. However problems can still arise and generate cruelty. The aquarist still visits retail outlets and bumps into say a fish that is beautiful and not too expensive. A magnet seems to drag the wallet out and the aquarist obtains the fish, unable to resist even after all the patience and planning that has gone before. It could be known that the fish is generally compatible with anything, but the desire and acceptable cost seem to overpower all other thought. This is cruel not only to the fish just obtained but to the livestock already in the aquarium, because the ability of the system to cope is being pushed. In other words, the aquarist is starting to overstock. This could have repercussions on oxygen availability in warmer weather as an example, or cause territorial disputes with otherwise settled fish. Also if the new fish is stressed, added to the stresses it has already endured in travel and a probably crowded retail sales tank, disease could appear. The only reasonable way to avoid this (when adding a fish to an under stocked aquarium) is to quarantine and the majority of aquarists do not. Quarantine is not a 100% sure way but is far better than a direct introduction. The other way is to know absolutely that the retailer has quarantined the fish – properly quarantined that is and not added other fish during the quarantine period. The best way with a fully stocked aquarium is to invoke another marine aquarists’ watchword, ‘discipline’ and not make the purchase in the first place.

Failing to complete routine seawater changes is cruel as the inhabitants are being forced to live in an environment that is reducing in quality. Pollutants build and the eventual result is poor coral displays and reduced fish colouration, if not worse. Apparatus such as the protein skimmer are a great advantage in assisting with the maintenance of quality but do not remove the need for routine changes. Seawater quality is the number one requirement in a marine system.

It goes on…. failure to provide an adequate diet for fish is another. Fish have adapted to their food over a long time and cannot automatically change to another type. Some fish are omnivorous and will take the usual flake and frozen offerings. Often so will other more specialized fish, but their dietary needs will not be properly met causing eventual health problems.

The majority of the corals that are kept require adequate light to prosper. Hopefully the aquarist will have researched and provided adequate lighting in the first place. However, to the human eye some lighting doesn’t seem to reduce much, but it does. Failure to change tubes and/or bulbs at acceptable intervals can have an effect on corals that will not please the aquarist.

Apart from feeding, lighting and routine seawater changes sometimes an aquarist after a fairly lengthy period of owning an aquarium fails to maintain the system properly. This starts by skipping the odd more cumbersome task as it ‘shouldn’t matter I’ll do it later’. This then happens more often and the efficiency of the support system reduces causing trouble in the future which the aquarist doesn’t rectify properly causing more problems……

No doubt there are other examples of cruelty that could apply. There will be those who state that I’m being too harsh and maybe those who agree with the text. It has to be said that even if research, caution, patience and discipline are applied things could still go sideways. However there isn’t any doubt, in my mind anyway that if all the research is done to produce a properly functioning and fully supportive aquarium system which is then properly stocked after more research the aquarist is off to a fine start. If maintenance is then done properly and discipline exerted over the ‘one more fish’ magnet, the aquarist can be sure that he or she is not being cruel. The fish and corals etc could have a long healthy life without natural stresses such as the threat of predation. Who knows, one day if the coral reefs continue to decline the aquarist may be able to contribute a coral or fish to a resource for species protection.

  1. Keeping fishes in an aquarium can sometimes be like keeping it under house (aquarium) -arrest for the rest of its life.

    They were meant to swim for miles and miles in the open and we take away that freedom of theirs. Pretty cruel if you see it in that sense.

  2. Hello Joel. Thanks for your comment.
    I agree and at the same time disagree! It’s correct that fish in an aquarium haven’t any option but to,well, stay in the aquarium. However, many fish that are kept in aquariums in nature would not wander far – for example there are those fish that dwell near a particular hole or cave and dart in for protection, there are those that dwell around a coral head and use that for protection going inside the ‘branches’ when a threat is near. There are fish that do wander looking for food within a small area before returning to their safe haven. Many of these type of fish tend to be small and are kept in aquariums. There are also those fish that wander further afield such as surgeons, and these fish need proper consideration – is the aquarium large enough to afford reasonable swimming space? In the same way, some surgeons grow large as do many angelfish. It has to be said that many smaller home aquariums are not large enough and information is readily available to warn of this. This is why research and caution are so important so that the aquarium setup is correct and the inhabitants are in a high quality environment, and high quality includes space considerations.

  3. Thanks – where is article source?

  4. Hello.
    The article is direct from and not sourced from anywhere else.

  5. Thanks, it’s usefully for me.

  6. Interesting thinking.

  7. I appreciate your article. I don’t think there is a single aquarist out there who hasn’t needlessly killed a fish because of novice mistakes. It is always a disappointment. I think we can all do our part and try to source farm raised fish and obsessively research before purchase. It is a great hobby.

  8. Hi Justin. That’s a good point about farm raised fish, in fact any fish which is the healthy result of a breeding programme as this includes those that are produced by home aquarists. It’s reported that bred fish are more suited to an aquarium, not by space etc but because they are more durable. Apparently this was first found with clownfish which are bred in considerable numbers. Provided the breeding is true, that is there isn’t any deviation from what Mother Nature intended, then it can only be good for aquarists and the wild reefs. The same goes for corals which are now propagated in considerable numbers commercially and by home aquarists.

  9. Great information! I’ve been looking for something like this for a while now. Thanks!

  10. Glad you found it useful.

  11. Hi, you’ve written a wonderful article. Your information is not only useful but also makes us to think providing a healthy and safe home for our fish. Thank you for sharing your opinions.

  12. Thanks for the compliment.

  13. I think this was a very interesting post thanks for writing it!

  14. Glad you found it interesting.

  15. useful information. It’s really good

  16. You raise an interesting question, one I’ve thought about a lot throughout the years I’ve kept fish. My father used to keep 4 250+ gallon reefs, with brilliant corals and vibrant fish. The whole display was stunning. He never overstocked the tanks and all the fish did seem fine. I’m sure a few fish died, but no more than in nature; I remember in particular one clown fish we were very fond of got spooked one day and swam into an anemone… and that was the end of him. The same thing could’ve happened in nature.

    What I’m getting at as I wax philosophical about aquariums, is that a well kept one should have no greater risk of death, no worse water conditions, and no worse for keeping fish in than nature, where the fish come from. In fact, the fish should do better, because you’re keeping them in a controlled environment where you should dutifully tend to each one and make sure it’s doing well. Anything less than that is “cruel” to the fish; taking away their chance to live or reducing it due to novice mistakes, not paying attention, etc. is all unfair to them.

    I think it’s no less cruel to own a dog than it is to keep a fish tank, as long as it is well kept.

  17. Hello Adam. In my opinion you’ve got it spot on. It’s all down in the first instance to reasonable research by the aquarist and secondly to ongoing adequate care. Thanks for the comment.

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