Are aquariums cruel

The ocean in the living room

An estimated 7 million ornamental fish adorn Swiss living rooms, offices and restaurants. Anyone who does not know how to deal with the around 50 relevant ornamental fish species can cause a lot of animal suffering.

The colorful world of the aquarium comes astonishingly close to the human conception of paradise. It seems that life is thriving here. The aquarium beguiles the eye of the beholder, lets you immerse yourself in a fantasy world full of adventure. Lush vegetation dances with the water, a group of tiger barbs eagerly swims back and forth, sailfish float loftily by, the aerial catfish take care of the algae and the armored catfish take care of the sand. A garden of Eden in miniature, a peaceful community in tempered fresh water, but still a kind of "ocean on the table", to quote Emil Adolph Rossmässler, who in the 19th century made himself the "father of German aquaristics".

Import from the tropics

The natural scientist, writer and educator triggered an aquarium boom in German-speaking countries in 1854 with his famous article in the then equally famous magazine "Die Gartenlaube". The aquarium became a standard accessory in the winter gardens of the Wilhelminian style villa. That was entirely in the spirit of Rossmässler, who wanted to bring the green of nature into their homes for city dwellers, battered by the gray of industrialization. Above all, he had “the rich” in focus.

But even he, the naturalist, soon had to take note of what all aquarium owners have to learn: keeping fish in a glass cage is demanding if you want to do them justice. If you don't do it right, you transform the supposed paradise into a place of death for its residents and experience “trouble and annoyance”. And because the real table ocean has significantly higher demands than the “lake in a glass”, Rossmässler soon recommended the freshwater aquarium, with mud-bites (Cobitis fossilis) or mud-bites (Cottus gobio) as inhabitants, naturally all wild-caught. But the goldfish held up best. No one has ever died in the aquarium, writes Rossmässler in his 1857 book "Das Süsswasseraquarium".

Almost 160 years after Rossmässler's writings, many things are different - and yet some are the same. Thanks to technology and globalization, keeping fish in aquariums has not only become easier, goldfish and mud-bites as potential aquarium fish have long since received tropical competition. The breeding of ornamental fish is an international business, billions of animals are produced and sent around the globe. Most of them come by plane. Singapore is the hub for the distribution of tropical ornamental fish all over the world. But the Czech Republic is also a center of ornamental fish farming.

There are around 30,000 fish species in total, says the zoologist and fish expert Claudia Kistler, who runs a website to bring knowledge about ornamental and laboratory fish to the people. 1000 of these species are trade-relevant aquarium fish, of which 50 species make up the main business in Switzerland. 50 species each with their own specific needs. Not all that complement each other optically also fit together biologically.

Keeping fish is a complex matter. A wrong combination of fish species isn't the only thing an aquarium owner can do wrong. There are many sources of error, says Claudia Kistler: Incorrect feeding, incorrect temperature, incorrect "furniture", incorrect soil conditions, incorrect maintenance of the water, incorrect positioning of the aquarium, for example as a room divider that can be seen all around - all of this can lead to stress and death for the fish lead to the “annoyance” already observed by Rossmässler among aquarium owners.

Hans Gonella knows what can happen then: You want to get rid of the fish. Gonella has been running the fish shelter in Embrach, Zurich, for a number of years, a project of the Zurich Aquarium Association, a section of the Swiss animal welfare organization STS. It is particularly busy during the holiday season, he says. It happens again and again that vacationers say that they will get new, young fish after the vacation. Fish are as cheap as they are beautiful. For the price of a cappuccino there are two or three pieces of young neon, a green fringed slipper or a platy is available in pet shops for just under 6 francs. Everything is much cheaper on the Internet.

Anyone who surrenders their fish to the catchment center must pay 20 francs per batch. 1500 to 2000 fish end up with Hans Gonella and his people every year. Here the fish are cared for and, if possible, passed on. The sanctuary finds a new home for around 1000 of its protégés each year.

Bad and good grades

The statistics from the fish catchment station do not paint a good picture of Swiss aquaristics. 80 percent of the aquariums are community aquariums with several fish species; Gonella believes that 90 percent of these are overpopulated and the species are incorrectly composed. According to his experience, 8 out of 10 fish die in the first three months after the initial purchase. An overwhelming majority of 95 percent of aquarists neither know the species names of their fish nor their behavior, according to the experience of the fish shelter. In addition, 7 out of 10 fish show deficiency symptoms or are overfed, and the majority of aquarium owners pay too little attention to changing the water.

"A certificate of competence would be much more urgent for aquarists than for dog owners," says Gonella. The keeping of fish and especially of several fish species together is much more demanding than keeping a dog. He therefore pursues the goal of such a certificate of competence. And he urges self-restraint. It is best to keep only one species of fish in a home aquarium. By the way, Gonella does not want to pass the buck to the pet shop; the owner's responsibility cannot be delegated.

"Our customers are not fish killers," says Felix Weck, "they want to be proud of their beautiful aquarium." Weck is not only the owner of the "Zum Goldfisch" pet shop in Basel, which specializes in aquaristics, but has also been president of the Association of Zoological Specialty Shops for many years - and he also sees himself as an animal rights activist.

He has a much better picture of the Swiss aquarium scene than Hans Gonella. Times have changed, people want to do everything right today and technology offers plenty of tools for this, says Weck. In addition, problem fish such as loach, shark barbel and shark catfish have disappeared from the range of pet stores. It happens twice a year that customers bring their fish back to his shop out of “annoyance”.

Although Weck also admits that keeping fish is demanding, he does not believe in an obligatory certificate of competence for aquarists. In order to do justice to the topic in all its facets, a three-week course would be necessary, he says. He prefers to start with the training of the sales force. Rossmässler also placed all hope in education: "I believe," he wrote in the introduction to his work, "that one will have to struggle less with evils than usual if one follows the instructions in this little booklet exactly."

Swiss aquariums under the microscope

➊ 70% of the fish are fed incorrectly. They have symptoms of deficiency, are malnourished or overfed. One problem: The catfish swimming on the bottom can only get the flakes of food that the fish swimming above have not eaten.

➋ 60% of aquarium owners change the water irregularly (if at all, every 3–6 months).

➌ 80% of the fish die in the first three months after the initial purchase.

➍ A large part of the aquarium population is made up of 50 species.

➎ 40% of aquarium owners buy new fish every month and use them to replace the wasted fish.

➏ Around 1500 fish are given to the sanctuary every year. Goldfish lead this inglorious ranking. Through centuries of breeding, they have got used to life in captivity and can live up to 30 years.

➐ 95% of aquarium owners do not know the names or the behavior of their fish. Robbers are kept together with prey fish again and again.

➑ 80% of the aquariums are home to several species of fish. 9 out of 10 of these community aquariums are overcrowded or incorrectly populated. Small fish in particular, such as the pea puffer fish, are often bought in large quantities.

Source: Embrach fish catching station (FAS), the information is based on experience.

Legends, facts and bad habits

Are Fish Stupid?
Every round is new for the goldfish, because they are stupid like all fish. This is a common prejudice that fish researcher Claudia Kistler vehemently contradicts. Fish have been evolving for 500 million years, in contrast, fish behavioral research is fairly new and underdeveloped. But what we do know, according to Kistler, is that fish have cognitive abilities, they can solve problems, learn and plan. Grouper and moraine can hunt together, and there are fish that use tools. Fish can develop stereotypes in unspecific holdings - for example in tanks with little structure, such as those used in animal experiments. The researcher therefore advocates species-appropriate fish keeping - also in the laboratory.

Do Pisces Feel Pain?
In the experiment, trout are fed two types of crabs: those without spines and those with. While the fish devour the former greedily, the latter are immediately spat out the first time and spurned the second time. This is more than a reflex, says zoologist Claudia Kistler. Numerous studies have shown that fish definitely have the necessary nerve and brain structures as well as the physiology to experience pain. On the other hand, the ability of fish to suffer, i.e. the question of whether fish can process pain, has not finally been clarified, as the veterinarian Ralph Knüsel, who specializes in fish, says.

Are fish pets?
With an estimated seven million individuals, ornamental fish are indeed the most common domestic animal in Switzerland, but are they also domesticated in a biological sense? Natural scientist Emil Rossmässler had to expect the difference between domesticated and wild animals 160 years ago. The goldfish from China never died because they were used to life in captivity through centuries of breeding. Even today, goldfish and koi are the only fish that are considered domesticated - all others are wild animals. This also applies in particular to pikeperch, which more and more farmers are interested in breeding - not at all to the delight of fish researcher Claudia Kistler, because structureless tanks are not species-appropriate.

Can you freeze fish?
It is a well-known practice: ailing or unloved fish (and reptiles) are placed in the freezer and then disposed of. This is inadmissible and ethically unjustifiable. According to Gieri Bolliger from the Foundation for Animals in Law, freezing without anesthesia is cruelty to animals and a violation of the Animal Welfare Act. The same applies to flushing fish away in the toilet. Getting rid of your fish in this way is "cruel and contrary to animal welfare," writes the Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office. This also applies to killing with boiling water. In specialist shops and at the vet there is a drug for euthanizing ornamental fish in accordance with animal welfare standards (Fishmed Sleep). crz.