What Happens When an Aquarium Closes?

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.


Jim Ven
Jim Ven3 years ago

thanks for the article.

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing

Tammy D.
Tammy D5 years ago

well, Linda T., with all due respect, you make *me* angry. You assume to know what these creatures think and feel. You also assume that fish and other creatures only have space requirements, not movement requirements. Fish do not swim in circles. Most creatures move from area to area, not just for food. Have you ever read about how cats move? They travel amazing distances. Does it then seem fair to you to keep them in a box, even a very large box?

Animals are not here for our entertainment. While I think it is important for kids to learn about animals, I think it is far more important for them to learn about them in nature, not in captivity. While there might not be alligators and elephants in Washington, there are so many other things to see. We just need to look closer, and not kill everything around us.

Eva Adgrim
Eva adgrim5 years ago

I have never heard about any aquarium that shut down.

John Ditchman
John Ditchman5 years ago

The National Aquarium always seemed to be an afterthought, stuck in the basement of the Commerce building. It certainly did not have the funding or respect the National Zoo has. I'm glad the animals got moved to better settings. I hope a new facility in DC gets funded, but our do-nothing congress is unlikely to do so.

Bernadett P
Britt P5 years ago

This is one of the MANY many things about the new Toronto Ripley’s Aquarium that worries me. This aquarium opened this September practically in my backyard. Despite the efforts of our local animal rights communities to prevent its opening.. sadly it is now open to the public. They masquerade as “conservation and education” but anyone actually educated and compassionate knows this is huge BS. Among Ripley’s Aquarium there are slaughterhouses in downtown Toronto. . .and now a proposal to expand the airport right downtown and paving over part of the lake!!…. Toronto you are becoming a nightmare to live in.. both for animals and caring humans alike.

Richard Hancock
Richard Hancock5 years ago

Thanks for posting, very interesting.

Linda Tonner
Linda Tonner5 years ago

Some of you who objected to the captivity of these animals make me so angry!!!!

OK, most zoos leave a lot to be desired in many cases, depending on the size and nature of their habitat, but I'm guessing that most fish in aquariums are quite content as long as they have nice clean water, places to hide and enough to eat,

I strongly object to dolphins and whales being kept in terribly small tanks, where they are not free to roam, but I suspect that the walnut sized brain of an alligator also cares little for the habitat as long as there is plenty of food available.

Then why am I angry? Because I live about 100 miles from DC and drove there quite often to work, and though there are the wonderful Smithsonian museums, there is little entertainment for the inner city poor kids (Yes! In our nation's capital! Poor kids) but I believe that many school field trips were spent looking at those fish. Poor parents often have no clue about taking their kids to parks of libraries, but the schools do.

susan a.
susan a5 years ago

Well,i have never seen a human behind bars for the entertainment...they have normally done something to warrant incarceration whereas animals have done nothing to deserve such a cruel fate I for one don't see any pleasure in seeing an animal pacing back and forth ,slowly going mad !

Frances Bell
Frances Bell5 years ago

Do humans really need to see wild animals? There are enough documentaries out there. There are enough injured animals in need of rehabilitation - if you want to see a live animal and actually have an educational experience, volunteer at a reputable wildlife shelter. Anything else is voyeurism contributing to the bottom dollar of an enterprise that is more interested in profit than educating hte public. How many people do you think really learn anything about animals, their natural behaviour, and conservation by trudging through a zoo?