Ethics in a Fish Bowl

A strong ethical case exists against putting wild-born captive killer whales on display in glorified swimming pools when these creatures naturally roam vast oceanic expanses.

But what about pet fish imprisoned in a tank on a mantelpiece in our homes? Are they claustrophobic victims as well and hence a weight on our conscience?

Scientists are becoming ever more convinced that even the smallest fish are sentient species capable of cognitive abilities that include communication and sensitivity to pain.

One can certainly argue that we would be doing no favors to captive-bred ornamental fish by releasing them into the wild where they would stand little chance of survival. The odds are they would be better off in a home aquarium, provided the tank was reasonably spacious, uncrowded, filled with vegetated hiding places, and well-maintained. (Unfortunately, all too many pet fish are condemned to tiny, sterile bowls where their life span is mercifully cut short.)

But what if the pet fish in your living room were wild-caught? Although small fish do not travel the great distances of marine mammals, their freedom of movement in natural surroundings obviously exceeds their mobility in a fish tank. With this freedom usually comes superior reproduction, and more energetic responses to stimuli. Without it, the impact on wild fish is a question mark, for no tank ever completely duplicates a natural setting.

Still, there are documented negative factors. Consider that as much as 80 percent of the wild-caught tropical fish die in between capture and transit to actual sale, and that commercial demand is dangerously depleting some species. Might that not be reason to follow animal rights activists' advocacy that if you want wild-caught ornamental fish in your house, purchase a video?

Many owners of wild-caught ornamental fish have standard defenses for their acquisition. They argue that life in a fish tank is not so bad compared to the wild. After all, the threat of predation is removed, pollution is non-existent with conscientious maintenance, and there is a reliable supply of nutritious food. Pet owners contend that it is hard to tell if the fish are happy in such an enclosure, but at least outwardly, they appear to be content. Moreover, studies are cited that indicate pet ornamental fish can have a therapeutic effect on the human psyche. In some instances, the presence of the fish has been reported to soothe anxiety, lower blood pressure, and even calm hyper-active youngsters.

Of course, an obvious retort is handy for an environmental activist concerned about the pet trade's adverse impact on tropical fish populations in the wild.

Why shouldn't captive-bred ornamental fish provide the same psychological benefits as their wild-caught cousins?