Most of us have heard of the book ‘Jaws’ and even more of us will have seen the fantastic 1973 film of the same name, staring Robert Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw and Roy Scheider. On its release, Jaws was a hugely successful blockbuster and it will forever go down in history as a classic, and it just happens to be one of my favourite films. Arguably the best thing about the story of ‘Jaws’ and what pulled in the crowds, was the focus around a ‘rogue’ great white shark. At the time, terrified by what they had witnessed on the screen, people set out to hunt and eliminate these apparently dangerous monsters from the ocean. Nowadays however, we understand this predator a little better and many of us, though still adverse to the idea of being in the water with such a creature, have nothing but respect for them. Or so we thought.
In some cases, human fascination with such a species can come with negative consequences. Indeed, in the past few days we have heard reports that the worlds ONLY captive great white has died, just three days after his release into a Japanese aquarium. It is a huge blow for the aquarium and an even greater blow for the shark. Brought to the aquarium when accidentally caught in a fishing net off the coast of Japan, the shark measured a moderate 3.5m in length, or 11.5 feet.
Although the reasons for the sharks death remain unclear, it is recognised that since its capture, the male great white had exhibited a troubling trait. He simply refused to eat. An investigation is underway into the sharks death, though this is not the first time that the containment of a great white in an aquarium has been unsuccessful. In 1981 in San Francisco, SeaWorld was boasting the ownership of a captive great white. However, just 16 days later, the great white had to be released due to the same problem, refusal to feed. In this latest case, PETA have claimed that the reason for the sharks death is plain and simple: captivity.
Great white sharks are great predators of an even greater size, known to swim for hundreds of miles each day. Therefore, you would think that it should be widely accepted that they should not be held in a cramped and contained tank (much like orcas). Unfortunately, when it comes to ocean creatures, we seem to believe that all will adapt to life in a tank much like a goldfish in a bowl. The reality is of course, quite different. In fact, the animals can become severely depressed and they often display increased levels of aggression, with such behaviours being exhibited by many captive orcas, particularly at Seaworld. It has been suggested that such behaviours, depression in particularly, could actually be a result of incorrect water solutions being used in tanks. As a saltwater species, it is vital that sharks (and other species) have the correct saline solution in their tanks, should solutions be incorrect, which they most likely are, the animal is likely to suffer. But why aren’t they eating? Though it could be a result of cognitive problems such as depression, it could also be something more simple. As we know, sharks are top predators and as such a predator, they hunt and very rarely scavenge. Therefore, this could explain why captive sharks have been known to refuse the meat that they are offered.
There has also been the suggestion that the tank environment in which these animals are subjected can have an effect on their electrosensitivity. This was shown in the case of a female great white, where simple and slight differences in the electric potential through the tank caused the shark to repeatedly collide with a certain area of the aquarium. Again, the female was lucky and was released before any serious harm could come to her.
Although there have been many failed attempts to keep great whites in captivity, the attraction of the public to such a species is huge. Great whites are fascinating specimens, they have prowled the oceans for thousands of years and are of course, dangerous predators. In a profit orientated world where each aquarium wants to have something unique to offer, it is likely that attempts to keep great whites in captivity will continue to occur, despite the apparent dangers to the animal.
In the battle of Jaws vs the aquarium, the aquarium is winning. I’ve quoted it before and I’ll quote it again, because when it comes to animal welfare, it really can be true:
“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.” – Albert Einstein.
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