Relaxing with the Fishes: Benefits of Home and Public Aquaria

By Karen Murchie, Scott Dowd, and Abigail Lynch

Have you ever wondered why the dentist’s office keeps an aquarium? 

For many of us, a trip to the dentist can put many of us on edge. Drills!  Pulling teeth!  Those spit suckers! Yikes!!  Well, numerous studies have proven what you probably already inherently know – there are psychological and physiological benefits of interacting with fish in aquaria (see Clements et al. 2019 for review).  Aquaria are associated with relaxation.  So, those dentists’ and doctors’ offices are very intentionally trying to help create a tranquil environment for their patients. 

Beyond a trip to the dentist (which many of us are avoiding now for reasons beyond just dentaphobia), the current state of our world has generally increased anxiety levels for many.  Perhaps, aquaria can provide a calming presence in our current chaos. Watching the fish, you can quiet your mind and focus on their natural beauty.  See the fish gliding serenely through the habitat?  Hear the quiet flow of water through the filter?  (Bet your heart rate just dropped envisioning that image!

Many home aquarists also take pride and find satisfaction in nurturing their systems to keep their communities healthy and well.  Owning an aquarium can markedly increase human well-being in terms of reducing stress, improving mood, tempering behavior, and providing other restorative effects.  Before embarking on starting a home aquarium or adding to your current set up, do take the time to be a responsible hobbyist and learn more about the required commitment for the welfare of the animals.

Making a living through the aquarium trade

Newly captured aquarium fishes begin their journey to home aquariums in distant land. Photo Credit: Project Piaba.

In addition to individual well-being benefits, home aquaria can support livelihoods and environmental stewardship. While these contributions may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of aquarium fish, for species that are not cultivated but instead rely on wild-harvest, these fisheries drive not only economies, but also may enhance environmental protections.  As 90% of the organisms in the home aquarium trade are freshwater species, the IUCN Freshwater Fish Specialist Group Home Aquarium Fish Sub-Group is devoted to promoting “the conservation and wise management of wild populations of tropical fishes that are part of the home aquarium trade, as well as the ecosystems where they are found” and supporting “sustainable, socioeconomic, and environmental benefits for home aquarium fishing communities, especially living in regions of biological importance.”  

The aquarium trade fishery in Brazil’s Rio Negro is an example of economic and environmental benefits of the aquarium trade (see case study 2.4 of Phang et al. 2019). This fishery has been in operation since the mid-twentieth century.  In the Barcelos municipality, the aquarium fish trade accounts for more than half of the economy, and has proven to be a sustainable source of revenue. Because the health and productivity of Rio Negro fishes depend on an intact and fully functioning ecosystem, including the river, floodplain and forests, support for this fishery keeps practices such as slash-and-burn agriculture at bay.

Piabeiros and Piabeiras collect aquarium fish using low impact gear. Photo Credit: Project Piaba.

A community-based organization called Project Piaba, based in Barcelos, has a mission to maximize environmental and socioeconomic benefits to Rio Negro that can be derived from the aquarium fishery.  Here, the slogan is, “Buy a Fish, Save a Tree!”  Indeed, decades of monitoring this fishery have shown that there is little to no impact on the long term stability of species targeted for the trade. The aquarium fish resource, global demand, and the trade chain established to get the fish to the markets has resulted in generations of livelihoods for rural people of the region. The fishers understand that although the fish stocks are quite resilient, they are very sensitive to environmental conditions and require everyone’s efforts to keep the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems protected. In addition, Project Piaba acts internationally with stakeholders in the scientific and conservation community, zoos and public aquariums, as well as the commercial aquarium fish industry, with the shared goals of the most responsible aquarium trade and fostering mechanisms that yield such meaningful outcomes.

Even if you don’t have an aquarium at home, you can visit a public aquarium!

While home aquaria can have the benefits listed above, they are not always going to be practical for everyone. Luckily, there are many public aquariums that you can visit to marvel at the amazing diversity of fishes and their adaptations to life underwater (find an accredited aquarium near you and check out their website for up-to-date information to help you plan a visit).

Shedd Aquarium’s “Amazon Rising” exhibit explores the Amazon River basin, where you can explore how fishes, frogs, turtles, birds, snakes and people have adapted to thrive in the yearly wet and dry cycle. Photo Credit: Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez

Public aquariums are expertly curated to connect guests with engaging information on species and inspire curiosity. Because public aquaria have the capacity for larger exhibit space, you can often view interactions of communities of species that you would find in the natural environment, or you can hone in on an individual that catches your eye. You can get lost in the beauty of watching fishes of all shapes, sizes, colors and patterns and think about how their form gives clues to their function in an ecosystem. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, IL highlights this diversity in its current special exhibit, Underwater Beauty.

Shedd Aquarium’s special exhibit “Underwater Beauty” highlights how every aquatic animal is adapted to thrive in its environment, and how this diversity is worth saving. Photo Credit: Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez

A visit to a public aquarium also comes with the benefit of contributing to conservation efforts. Public aquaria are important nodes in the modern conservation network, promoting aquatic biodiversity through a variety of programs such as applied field research and public engagement, reintroduction programs, and IUCN Species Survival Commission programs (see Murchie et al. 2018 for more details).

Shedd Aquarium has numerous applied freshwater and marine research programs along with an animal response team that are supported by guests visiting the aquarium. Here Shedd Aquarium staff release Blanding’s turtles as a part of restoration efforts with local partners. Photo Credit: Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez

For those with access to the internet, the calming offerings of public aquaria are also readily available online. Many public aquariums have live camera feeds, so even if you can’t make it in person right now, you can enjoy a view of the underwater world from the comfort of your own home (e.g., Shedd Aquarium Underwater Beauty special exhibit camera).

About the guest authors

Karen Murchie, Ph.D. is the Director of Freshwater Research at the Shedd Aquarium. She researches fish migrations in the Great Lakes, exploring how human activities and environmental change can influence fish behavior.

Scott Dowd, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Project Piaba. He has been actively engaged in conservation of the cardinal tetra fishery in the mid-Rio Negro region of the Amazon for more than 20 years and has recently established the Home Aquarium Fish Sub-group within the IUCN Freshwater Fish Specialist Group.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. NorthsideRasta Rogers says:

    Been a fish keeper over 40 years it can be a relaxing hobby with the fish swimming back and forth at various speeds thru the aquariums. Whether they’re from a LFS or fish I’ve caught in local rivers & lakes, read on the conditions that keep different species contented in aquaria before bringing them home.

    1. Abigail J. Lynch says:

      Thanks so much for reading and for your comment! Excellent recommendations for any home aquarist.

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