The National Aquarium in Washington, D.C. may have closed its doors to the public on September 30, but the hard work had only just begun for the 14 person staff. After all, closing an aquarium is not as simple as shuttering the tanks – suddenly there are thousands of sea creatures in need of new homes.
As National Geographic explains, the good news is the National Aquarium is not especially large. Whereas the Monterey Bay Aquarium holds 35,000 animals, the D.C. facilities only kept 2,500. Even better, the aquarium’s sister site, the much larger National Aquarium in Baltimore, has accepted at least of half the fish into its own habitats.
The National Aquarium has been a Washington fixture since 1878, though the attraction did change locations from the Washington Monument to the basement of the Commerce Building in 1932. With major renovations in store for the Commerce Building, the National Aquarium had no choice but to close shop and undergo the process of relocating its creatures.
Fortunately, early warning has allowed the National Aquarium to plan rather than rush through the process. Altogether, the staff and a handful of volunteers will spend six months relocating more than 1,000 different species. Primarily, the staff has relied upon a zoo and aquarium Listserv to find other sites willing to take on some of the animals.
It’s a process with little precedent. It’s almost unheard of for aquariums, particularly the accredited institutions, to close down. Aquariums are generally well attended and thrive financially in local economies.
Surprisingly, there are no official regulations on how to transport aquarium creatures. Instead, caretakers must use their expertise and creativity to move the animals to the new homes.
A pair of alligators were among the first to leave the aquarium, and also among the most difficult to wrangle. Employees enticed one alligator out of the water with food, while the other one had to be forcibly removed from its habitat. Subsequently, the workers taped the alligators’ snouts shut with electrical tape and put them inside PVC pipes punctured with breathing holes. These pipes were then placed in crates and put on a cargo airplane. Though the shipment method seems way less than ideal, the silver lining is that the alligators will get to live their remaining days in a Louisiana swamp out of captivity.
Even some of the smaller fish and eels gave workers quite a challenge. The tiniest creatures were able to elude nets and hide in corners or crevices of the exhibits. “When you’re looking at a tank close to about a thousand gallons and you’re looking for a two-inch fish that’s dark and matches everything that’s in there, it can be a bit challenging,” Dave Lin, the National Aquarium’s director of operations, told National Geographic.
“Reversing some of the blood, sweat, and tears we’ve put into this facility is a little on the sad side,” added Lin. After all, it’s not only the animals that will be displaced. The closure will leave the 14-person staff unemployed. Though some have secured jobs at the Baltimore aquarium, many are still on the job hunt.
The staff still holds out hope that the National Aquarium will be resurrected in D.C. down the road. Though the facility lost federal funding 20 years ago, the Aquarium has survived as a non-profit organization ever since. Given what would surely be a challenging process of re-transporting or re-capturing the animals, however, some of them may want to reconsider the practice of keeping marine life in captivity altogether.