The Impossibility Of Quantifying Captive Aquatic Animal Populations
Aquatic Animal Law: An Emerging Field
Within the small field of animal law, aquatic animals are given less consideration and protection. The tide is turning, with the development of an aquatic animal law course and the Aquatic Animal Law Initiative at the Center for Animal Law Studies at Lewis & Clark Law School, and a forthcoming textbook, Aquatic Animal Law and Policy. Even though this is an exciting, developing area of study, data relating to aquatic animals is still difficult to find.
The Animal Welfare Act
The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) is an important law that offers some protections for certain animals held captive at zoos and aquaria. It details the minimum acceptable standard of care for some, but not all, animals used in research, exhibition, transport, and by dealers. Though the AWA protects “animals” there seems to be no scientific basis or standard for how the law defines who is and is not an animal. As of 2021, the AWA defines animal as “any live or dead dog, cat, nonhuman primate, guinea pig, hamster, rabbit, or any other warm-blooded animal, [except those excluded, who] is being used, or is intended for use for research, teaching, testing, experimentation, or exhibition purposes, or as a pet.”
The AWA’s definition of animal also explicitly excludes protection for some warm-blooded animals such as birds, rats, and mice who are bred for research purposes, horses not used for research purposes, and other farmed animals.
Cold-blooded Species Are Not Protected Under the Animal Welfare Act
The AWA clearly does not afford any protection to cold-blooded animals. In fact, they appear to be so much of an afterthought that they are not even recognized. The majority of aquatic animals held in aquaria, like finfishes and aquatic invertebrates, which include crustaceans, cephalopods, jellyfish, sponges, and mollusks, are cold-blooded, so their treatment is not regulated by the AWA. Exhibitors such as zoos and aquaria are not required to provide any legal standard of care for these animals.
Sentient animals should be legally protected, but whether an animal is sentient is not how the law determines who is afforded protections. The AWA’s failure to protect any cold-blooded species (and some warm-blooded animals) leaves animals who are sentient, like fish and crustaceans, without protection.
Attempting to Quantify All Captive Aquatic Animals in the United States
As a law student researching aquatic animal law, I have been focused on gathering population numbers of captive aquatic animals used in entertainment, including but not limited to those displayed in zoos and aquariums. Having such data would significantly help guide discussion and policymaking aimed at improving the treatment of captive animals used for entertainment who are not currently protected by the AWA. Unfortunately, the quest to find accurate, up-to-date numbers of captive aquatic species populations held specifically for exhibition purposes has been unsuccessful and, astonishingly, nearly impossible.
Why Population Data Is Valuable
In addition to population data allowing animal lawyers, advocates, and scientists to define the scope of the issue, it may also provide insight into the current living conditions of captive aquatic animals, and guide us in determining laws and policies for which to advocate. This data might also allow us to better track animals throughout their lives to get a better idea of how long they live and perhaps how their quality-of-life impacts their lifespan. Ultimately, that data could help make progress towards holding exhibitors of captive aquatic animals to some level of accountability for their care.
The AWA requires exhibitor licensees to keep an accurate population inventory of species the law protects because the data is valuable in guiding a facility’s standards for compliance. AWA compliant facilities are required to “provide their animals with adequate housing, sanitation, nutrition, water, and veterinary care,” and naturally, numbers of captive species populations will influence whether any specific environment meets the needs of that population or when changes in that data may warrant modifications of those conditions.
Because the only aquatic animals protected under the AWA are marine mammals, and the Act strictly mandates that exhibitors keep detailed inventories of all animals in their possession, retrieving population for at least these aquatic animals should be easy to find.
Public Disclosure Of Inventory Data
While the AWA requires licensees to keep accurate and updated animal population numbers, it does not require them to publicly report that data. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the regulatory body responsible for enforcing the AWA, completes periodic inspections of AWA licensed zoos and aquaria. On the inspection reports, inspectors detail every animal which they observe at the time of inspection.
APHIS has made facility inspection reports from 2014 through 2021 publicly retrievable on its website (with the exception of 2020 when inspections were halted due to the COVID pandemic), but each report must be searched and downloaded individually. APHIS does provide a list of entities actively licensed to breed, deal, or exhibit AWA protected species.Though it would technically be possible to compile population data using each facility’s inspection report, it is not a practical means of researching the populations of multiple captive animal species. That would require downloading an inspection report for every licensed and registered facility in the country, of which there are currently 5,736, or manually searching for each individual species.
At zoos and aquaria, these reports are only required for AWA protected species, which means they document only the populations of the few aquatic marine mammal species protected under the Act. There is presently no means to find data on the aquatic animals held captive at zoos and aquaria not protected under the AWA.
Data Reporting Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act
In addition to the AWA, the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA), offers some protections to marine mammals. Under this law, the government is required to establish and maintain publicly accessible population numbers of specific species. The MMPA, enforced by National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) (governing protection of cetaceans, including whales, dolphins, and porpoises, and pinnipeds, including seals and sea lions) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (governing protection of walrus, manatees, sea otters, and polar bears) requires each respective government agency to publish population numbers of all captive marine mammals on public display.
The National Inventory of Marine Mammals
NOAA Fisheries maintains the National Inventory of Marine Mammals (NIMM) which “tracks acquisitions (births, wild captures, imports), dispositions (deaths, escapes, releases), transfers (ownership changes) and transports (physical moves) to other facilities,” of cetaceans and pinnipeds, as well as those “held in permanent captivity for public display purposes (required by the MMPA), for scientific research or enhancement (required by permit), or for national defense purposes by the U.S. Navy (voluntarily provided).”
To find reliable numbers of these populations, I requested inventory data through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) online system. As a researcher trying to find the populations of aquatic animal species in captivity, I figured this would be an easy but reliable way to retrieve data for the few animal species NOAA is legally required to count. I specifically requested the most recent “NMFS Marine Mammal Inventory Reports and all data on marine mammals currently held in captivity.” The data came quickly (10 days), but had the following disclaimer attached:
NOAA Fisheries [NMFS] relies on data self-reported by marine mammal Owners and Facilities. This data has gone through numerous database migrations, and therefore, errors may exist. Please note: There may be data that cannot be recovered or verified. NMFS does not verify the data and cannot provide any guarantee as to the accuracy, reliability, or completeness of information.
So even where data on captive aquatic animal populations is publicly available, we cannot be sure of its accuracy.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement between countries that regulates trade of wild animals, to ensure that trade does not threaten the survival of species in the wild. The CITES website’s search feature allows researchers to search for data and information on the 5,950 species of animals protected by the treaty.
Much of it is very interesting, but a lot of the data is outdated or non-existent. For example, a sample report from CITES retrieved August 2021 reported the United States captive population data on the Fisher’s Seahorse from 2005 as “no data.”
Other Sources: Accrediting Agencies & Independent Sources
The government only keeps data on a few aquatic animal species, so I needed to look elsewhere.
Along with some legal regulations, animal exhibiting facilities also have systems of self-regulation. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), for example, has standards that facilities must meet to become accredited by the AZA. While the association keeps records of its member facilities, this information is only available to members, who are limited to those in the zoological field.
The Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums is an international accrediting body, but like the AZA, it does not have publicly available population data for species in member facilities.
Marine and Aquarium Biodiversity Trade Flow has excellent but outdated data, as the most recent numbers seem to be based on shipments from 2011. The website’s creators made the site after experiencing frustration at the “lack of comprehensive data related to the marine aquarium trade.” To build their own animal database, the group conducted research on their own by “evaluat[ing] trade data from more than 29,000 shipment declarations.”
Species360, a non-profit organization that “curates the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS), the world’s most comprehensive database of knowledge on more than 22,000 species,” appears to be an extremely reliable and updated data source. The data found there is compiled from 1,200 member facilities in 99 countries but comes at a price. In response to a request for data, the organization offered me a $890/year membership to their Research Partner Program. Unfortunately, again this data only includes member facilities, and searching for each individual aquatic animal species is not a practical way to determine the captive aquatic animal populations as a whole.
There are also non-profit groups, organizations, animal welfare researchers, and scientists that I reached out to when researching, none of whom had accurate population data on captive aquatic species.
Why the Data Matters
Animals held in captivity are exploited for our entertainment and are often suffering. Science has shown that many more animals have consciousness and feelings than previously recognized — even fish. Animal Ethics has studied animal sentience and concludes based on its research that we should operate under the assumption that any animal with a centralized nervous system may be sentient.
In order to continue to make legal progress in protecting animals, we need to know the full picture. Data provides valuable insight into that.