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Captive Breeding: What Is It and Why Is It Vital for Conservation?

Around the world, many zoos, aquariums and conservation facilities are investing significant time and money into captive breeding – helping to increase and control population numbers of species facing challenges in the wild.
The practice can help struggling species to thrive and help increase education and awareness around the challenges faced in the natural world.
To help you get to grips with captive breeding, we’ve put together a guide to what it is, how it works, and why it can be beneficial for marine conservation.
Use the links below to navigate or read on below for the full guide.

What is Captive Breeding?

Captive breeding is the process of breeding animals within a controlled environment, as opposed to their natural setting in the wild. Many zoos, aquariums and conservation facilities use captive breeding as a means of preserving species while easing pressure on wild populations.
Breeding animals successfully in a captive setting is a painstaking process, requiring an expert understanding of responsible animal propagation. And it doesn’t end with the birth of a new animal; captive breeding also entails ensuring that animals are given the right environment in which to raise their young successfully, with a view to seeing a new generation of the same species through to maturity.
Despite the costs and efforts involved, captive breeding is viewed as an essential process to preserve struggling species.
shark eggs

How Can Captive Breeding Help Marine Conservation?

Captive breeding, when carried out ethically and responsibly, offers a range of benefits which can bolster ongoing methods of species conservation. At Bristol Aquarium, breeding marine animals is an important part of our philosophy, and we believe it can assist with the conservation of rare and endangered species.
Here, we explore some of the ways captive breeding can help marine conservation.
Safeguard the Long-Term Future of Endangered Species
Where rare and endangered fish are dwindling in the wild, captive breeding goes some way towards safeguarding numbers – ensuring that vulnerable species are saved from extinction. While captive breeding doesn’t tackle the endemic causes of animal endangerment, it is viewed as a valuable means of conservation in cases where species numbers are dropping at an uncontrolled rate.
Helps Spread Awareness and Understanding
Captive breeding allows aquariums to showcase the value and beauty of rare and endangered marine life – ensuring that future generations have the opportunity to gain an understanding of these beautiful animals. It can also help spread awareness of other conservation practices, encouraging action against harmful human activities which pose a threat to endangered marine species.

Healthier Fish and Animals
An unexpected benefit of captive breeding that few are aware of is the notable improvements in animal health which the practice can help foster. In the case of captive breeding in aquariums, for example, fish are already accustomed to aquarium-prepared food and the conditions within the tank, which can help with disease prevention. There’s also no risk from long shipment and importation processes, further reducing the likelihood of disease.
Helps Tackle Unscrupulous Fishing Practices
The more fish which can be successfully bred in captivity, the less pressure is placed on precious ecosystems by unscrupulous fishing practices. In parts of the world, specifically in southeast Asia, local fishermen use questionable tactics to ensnare both food stock and aquarium fish. Back in 2016, for example, National Geographic reported a worrying rise in cases of fishermen temporarily paralysing fish with cyanide to make them easier to catch – a practice no responsible aquarium could condone.
By actively seeking to breed fish responsibly in a controlled environment, it helps remove some of the demand for exotic species – and, in turn, the threat of illegal fishing.
Clown fish
Eases Pressure on Wild Populations
In the process of breeding fish in captivity, this ultimately reduces the number of marine animals removed from wild, natural habitats. The knock-on effect this can have is profound, and many aquariums are now committed to captive breeding programmes as a means of reducing the impact of removing fish from ocean ecosystems. 

Captive Breeding Success Stories

At Bristol Aquarium, captive breeding is very much a part of our philosophy, and we work with our partners across the UK to manage an ethical and responsible breeding programme. Here, we take a look at some of the beautiful marine animals we and our partners have bred in recent years.
Big-Bellied Seahorses
The largest member of the seahorse family, big-bellied seahorses are native to Australia and New Zealand, where they live among algae and seagrasses. They’re ranked as ‘least concern’ on the conservation index.
Pipefish are part of the seahorse family, yet they have a distinctive elongated shape, swimming with their snouts pointed forwards. They’re also a freshwater species, making them a prime candidate for captive breeding (given the number of threats they face in the wild).
Lesser-Spotted Catsharks
Lesser-spotted catsharks are fish within the Scyliorhinidae family. Appearing on the conservation index, these beautiful fish are native to the British Isles, northern Africa and parts of the Mediterranean, where they scour the seabed for their prey.
Phantasmal Poison Dart Frogs
Among the most critically-endangered species we have reared successfully, Phantasmal Poison Dart Frogs are native to the rainforests of Ecuador. Known for their radiant colouring, they are registered as vulnerable on the conservation index.
Moon Jellyfish
moon jellyfish
The beautiful moon jellyfish is found throughout our oceans, and is among the most common species within UK waters. Approximately the size of a dinner plate, these jellies feed on plankton, and pose no risk to humans in terms of a sting.

How Does Captive Breeding Work?

Captive breeding isn’t simply a case of putting two animals together and hoping for the best. There are a whole range of factors to consider for a breeding programme to be successful, which we look at below:

  • Genetic diversity – successful breeding in a captive setting requires a similar genetic diversity to that found in the wild. Inbreeding is one of the biggest problems faced when trying to breed captive wildlife, so genetic diversity is a must to ensure successful breeding and healthy animals. To do this, marine animals are selected from different source populations – ensuring genetic diversity.
  • How will it benefit the species? – for responsible breeders, conservation is the key consideration when deciding whether to breed marine animals in captivity. Will doing so bring a benefit, either in easing pressure on wild populations or helping to bolster the numbers of an endangered species?
  • Space and environmental considerations – as we mentioned earlier, captive breeding doesn’t end when young are released from the egg. The process is designed to see animals raised to full maturity, so it’s vital that aquariums create the right environment for this to occur as naturally as possible in a captive setting.

So, there you have it, our comprehensive guide to captive breeding and why it can be valuable in helping to conserve marine life. If you’d like to learn more about captive breeding, specifically the programme here at Bristol Aquarium, visit the homepage or give our friendly team a call today on 0117 929 8929.

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