The Atlantic

Bursting the Aquarium Bubble

Aquariums might seem like underwater wonderlands, but building a new one comes at a cost.
Source: Yuriko Nakao / Reuters

The United States is experiencing a new wave of aquarium enthusiasm. Over the past few years, groups in Detroit; St. Louis; Scranton, Pennsylvania; Memphis; Cape Canaveral, Florida; and New York City have proposed or started construction on large aquariums. Springfield, Missouri, and Shreveport, Louisiana, have recently opened aquariums. Boosters for these spaces are selling them as conservation initiatives that will create jobs and bring in revenue—alternatives to sports stadiums and shopping districts meant to revitalize downtrodden downtowns.

But the history of aquariums tells a different story. In the earliest public aquariums, tanks were sparsely populated with somewhat mundane species. These institutions started as traveling fishery exhibits: The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair contained some of the first tank displays. The state of Pennsylvania fashioned a grotto with glass jewel boxes lining a dark hallway that

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