Sustainability at Shedd Aquarium

By Jennifer Selgrath

Two baby leafy pipefish are zooming around a tank. I try to take pictures and they come out looking like blurry toothpicks. Blimey! They are totally unlike their parents, who hover gently over rocks in the tank just above — cool, calm, and unhurried. I guess some things don’t change between species.  I am in Chicago visiting the John G. Shedd Aquarium, and their aquarist, Erika Lorenz, is kindly giving me a tour. Erika specializes in seahorse husbandry (i.e. feeding, breeding, and caring for seahorses) so she is full of information about seahorses and just about everything else. The Shedd Aquarium is a long-time partner of Project Seahorse, so it is lovely finally be here, seeing their work in action. 

One of the reasons these baby leafy pipefish are so exciting is that the Shedd is committed to exhibiting animals they have sourced sustainably. Seahorses are one species with which they’ve had a lot of success. We walk past tanks that house hundreds of babies. Seahorses are notoriously difficult to rear in captivity, so the birth of these new seahorses counts as a major success. Erika boxes some of the animals in a special container to be shipped to other aquariums around the world. Shedd’s collection includes a number of different species, including spiny, tigertail, and long-snouted seahorses (H. barberi, H. comes, and H. reidi). 

Sourcing fish and other marine and freshwater critters in sustainable ways is incredibly important. Aquarium- and aquaculture-bred animals have a much higher survival rate in captivity than animals that are caught in the wild for captivity. And if too many fish are caught, then the aquarium fishery can have devastating effects on local populations. My friend Malin Pinsky did his PhD research studying clownfish (think “Finding Nemo”) and found that their populations were almost locally extinct close to cities where there were aquarium fisheries.

Shedd sources their leafy pipefish and other species from Australia’s sustainable fisheries. There, one person is allowed to catch three males per year right before they give birth (seadragons, like seahorses, have male pregnancies).

The fisher is allowed to keep and sell the babies – some of which, like the ones I see at Shedd, are raised to adulthood – but he must return the fathers back into their homes in the ocean, thereby maintaining the local population, too. It’s fantastic to see what is possible when an aquarium integrates conservation into their mission.

Jennifer Selgrath is a PhD student with Project Seahorse.