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Friends, not food

The oceans are our new frontiers, and, as with any largely unknown territories, there is no consensus on what our relationship to them should be. On the one hand, knowledge is power and a really good way to raise future generations of people who care about conserving marine biodiversity is to expose children to the beauty and fascination of sea creatures early on. But, on the other hand, most children will see those inspiring animals in captivity, in an aquarium, and there is considerable controversy about the balance of entertainment and research carried out by the average aquarium. There is also the difficult issue, highlighted by the recent accusations against Niagara Falls' Marineland, of captive sea mammals like orcas, belugas, dolphins and others who do not thrive away from their natural habitat and communities. This problem is likely only to get worse: unconfirmed reports claim that a giant Chinese theme park, "Ocean Kingdom," has bought two orcas from Russia. The whales, captured in the Russian Sea of Okhotsk, were supposed to feature in the opening ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics but never turned up. If the sale is confirmed, it will be the first international sale of orcas captured in the wild since 1990. Not an encouraging sign of commitment to the well-being of sea creatures on China's part!

There are good aquariums, ones that provide a comfortable, healthy environment for their residents and contribute to the body of environmental knowledge through breeding and research programs. The Monterey Bay Aquarium, founded by David Packard, of Hewlett-Packard, and currently directed by his daughter Julie, a marine biologist, is one, probably the best in the world. Toronto's new Ripley's Aquarium can be another. When I visited the new venue, at the foot of the city's CN Tower, I certainly had doubts because I don't like to see any creature in captivity. I probably wouldn't have gone but I had two free tickets, courtesy of one generous friend, and another young friend who really needed to see fishes. I have to admit, I was won over. The walk-through gallery where I took this photo would be worth a visit alone, but there are also a kelp forrest, a beautiful exhibition of jelly fish, electric eels, octopus, and manta rays. You can touch some of the rays, but you should probably move your fingers when the baby hammerhead sharks swim by! Closer to home, there is an exhibit dedicated to the marine life of our Great Lakes, but I must say that Bass Pro Stores in Vaughan Mills has a larger and more diverse collection of local fish....

Aside from their beauty and peaceful atmosphere, aquariums also introduce people to species of fish they might not otherwise see. Films like Pixar's Finding Nemo can do this too, but an unintended side effect of the popular story was the near extinction of the unfortunate clown fish. Not to mention the hundreds of tropical aquarium fish "set free" in North American waters where they either perished or became invasive species.... Now there is a sequel, due for release this autumn. Finding Dory, starring the voice of committed vegan Ellen DeGeneres, will also feature the message that fish are "friends, not food," and we will have to hope that the blue tang, Dory's breed, will have better luck.

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