A young great white shark has died less than a week after going on display to the public at Japan’s Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, apparently falling victim to a rare set of circumstances that have proven excessively difficult to overcome in the past.
The shark was caught, accidentally, in a net last Tuesday, according to Yahoo News, along the southwestern coast of Japan. Measuring just over three-meters-long (11.5-feet), the shark was an immature sub-adult, not yet fully grown. The great white was taken to the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium, and its successful exhibition was subsequently announced.
— Tracking Sharks (@trackingsharks) January 7, 2016
Though the shark, a male, was initially doing well in captivity, that changed suddenly early on Friday. Despite swimming in a tank with other sharks, the great white suddenly weakened, sinking to the bottom of its enclosure. Aquarium staff attempted to give the shark oxygen in a separate, specialized tank, but those efforts failed. The great white shark, which had refused to eat anything since its capture, died on Friday morning.
It is extremely difficult to keep a great white shark in captivity, and the species has never been successfully exhibited for any considerable length of time. As Shark Bookings points out, the longest time a white shark has ever been kept in captivity was five weeks, though that animal did not survive the experience. Released back into the sea, it died just a week later.
— The Independent (@Independent) January 8, 2016
The reasons why white sharks do poorly in captivity are varied. Like many other open-ocean animals, great whites are wide-ranging predators who require vast swaths of territory to travel. They need to keep swimming constantly, not only to maintain their body temperature, but also to move water over their gills, in order to breathe.
Pioneering research conducted by groups like Ocearch and the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy along the Eastern coast of the United States has shown that tagged sharks can travel hundreds of miles over the course of just a few days. While this tendency is not exhibited by every shark or at all times, evidence would suggest that it is crucial to the animals’ well-being and survival. Far from the mindless killing machines often envisioned in fiction, white sharks have been increasingly shown to be complex apex predators, who exhibit a deep inter-relation with their environment.
A hungry great white shark! pic.twitter.com/EYtdPwBcgn
— Underwater Universe (@SeaLlfe) January 7, 2016
White sharks also become depressed in captivity, refusing to be fed by humans and exhibiting signs of increased aggression. Great whites have been observed head-butting the glass walls of their enclosures (though it is unclear if that behavior stems from depression or aggression), and at times have killed all other fish in their tanks. They present extreme logistical issues for aquariums, some of which are unable to handle the tricky but crucial balance of water salinity necessary for the sharks’ survival.
News of the great white’s death on Friday provoked an immediate reaction from PETA, which blamed the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium for the loss, saying that it was “cruel and wrong” to keep the animal in captivity.
“The cause of death is clear: captivity. The shark never had to die like this.”
The aquarium, in turn, defended its actions. Keiichi Sato, an aquarium researcher, asserted that the institution abides by all domestic and international regulations. According to him, a multitude of visitors had asked the aquarium to exhibit the shark to the public.
— Jorge Estevez (@JEstevezWFTV) December 28, 2015
Despite the ongoing war of words, the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium noted that an investigation into the great white shark’s sudden death is underway.