Why We Should Keep Great White Sharks Out of Captivity

Fagjun | Published 2017-05-28 05:16

Though other kinds of sharks and marine life can take to life in captivity quite well, great white sharks can't for a number of reasons.

Aquariums around the world have tried to successfully keep a great white in captivity. Doing so is greatly challenging, though this hasn't stopped these aquariums. A great white can bring in record numbers of visitors, since seeing a great white is such an uncommon experience.

Seeing great white sharks up close in a controlled environment can be both educational and entertaining. However, these sharks don't last long in aquariums. The longest time a great white has stayed in an aquarium is only about six months. No matter how educational or entertaining seeing a great white can be, it seems that it isn't worth the distress that great whites go through while in captivity.

Short Lives in Captivity

There are very good reasons why great whites should stay out of aquariums.

Aquariums have been trying to keep great whites since the 1970s up to the 1990s. However, during those decades, the longest period of time that aquariums were able to keep great whites was just 16 days. Aquariums had to release the sharks back into the ocean because the sharks were doing so poorly. They either refused to eat or needed to help to swim. In some cases, the sharks died captivity.

According to the Steinhart Aquarium, it's likely that the sharks were already dying, probably due to injuries they sustained while in transit. This explanation would make sense, because great white sharks are simply ill-suited for captivity.

Great whites need to swim in open waters in order to stay alive. They get the oxygen they need by swimming long distances. Water continuously goes through the sharks' gills, which supplies the oxygen the shark needs.

Monterey Bay Aquarium

The great white that resided in Monterey Bay Aquarium.
[Photo by Brocken Inaglory]

In 2004, the Monterey Bay Aquarium managed to keep a great white for 196 days. The aquarium prepared a shark tank that was 35 feet deep and had the capacity to hold one million gallons of water. Even with a tank of this size, the aquarium had to resort to taking a young great white that was only a little over four feet long. An adult great white, which can grow to 15 feet long, will find the accommodations severely lacking. Young great white sharks are also easier to feed, because they mostly eat fish. Adults feed on mammals, which will be harder to supply.

Transporting the shark took a lot of effort and resources. First, aquarium employees had to keep the shark in a large pen right in the ocean to see if it would feed. Then, they had to transfer the shark into a custom-built tank to transport it to the aquarium. While in the tank, employees had to constantly monitor the shark to make sure it can survive its half-day journey.

After six and a half months, the Monterey Bay Aquarium had release the shark. It had become aggressive and had killed some of the other fish in its tank. The aquarium was never able to beat this six-month record. They took in five more young great whites, the last one in 2011.

Leaving Great White Sharks Alone

A photo of the great white that lived for only three days in an aquarium in Japan
[Photo by AP]

Though the aquarium took great pains to give the sharks the best care possible, it wasn't enough. The sharks sustained wounds while in the tank, likely due to bumping against the walls. Captivity is also likely to be quite stressful for the sharks, since these are animals wired to roam the open seas. The Monterey Bay Aquarium's last great white, which they released after just 11 days, died just a few days after its release. No one is sure why this happened, though the stress of being in captivity probably didn't help.

Unfortunately, this hasn't stopped other aquariums from attempting to keep a great white. A Japanese aquarium captured and kept an 11.5-foot long male great white. The shark refused to eat the whole time it was in captivity, and suddenly went weak and sank to the bottom of its tank. It died after only three days in captivity.

It takes a lot of effort, resources, and careful planning to keep great white sharks alive and well in captivity. However, these efforts simply don't seem to be enough. Great whites just don't do well in captivity for a variety of reasons. Now, the question seems to whether or not we should keep trying to keep great whites in captivity. Is it worth it? It seems not, and maybe we should just let these sharks be.

For more details on why we should keep great white sharks out of aquariums, watch this video.

Hey! Where are you going?? Subscribe!

Get weekly science updates in your inbox!