On Tuesday afternoon, two animal rights advocates in inflatable shark costumes stood shoulder to shoulder in a small “tank” made of what appeared to be clear shower curtains tacked to a wooden frame outside of City Hall. This scenario, the advocates feared, could represent the fate of whichever sharks the Seattle aquarium decides to put in its new shark tank exhibit, the 325,000-gallon jewel of the new Ocean Pavilion between Pike Place Market and Piers 59 and 60. 

At the demonstration, speakers from the Northwest Animal Rights Network and Humane Voters of Washington spoke against the Seattle city council’s recent decision to bail out the Seattle Aquarium’s stalled shark tank project with a $20 million loan, bringing taxpayers' total contribution to the aquarium’s expansion to a cool $54 million. The $20 million will be paid back with interest, but the advocates would rather put that money elsewhere or use it toward another project. 

A free shark in sneakers. HK

“Whether it's animals in cages at the Woodland Park Zoo or marine animals held captive at the Seattle Aquarium, people's attitudes towards imprisoning wild animals is changing, and we need our leaders to change with us,” said Alyne Fortgang, a founding member of the animal rights group, Humane Voters of Washington. 

Councilmember Andrew Lewis argued that the council’s vote last month did not approve the shark tank. Instead, the vote approved more funding so that the aquarium could open the Ocean Pavilion on time in 2024. However, the protesters want the Council to take back the loan and spend it on housing, or else use its leverage to force the aquarium to build a virtual shark tank exhibit instead. 

Given that the $20 million comes from the Real Estate Excise Tax, which raises funds from property sales to pay for infrastructure, they argue that spending it on housing instead makes more sense.

But if the City is intent on keeping the Pavilion's opening timeline, then the animal rights advocates argued that replacing the tank with a virtual exhibit would a good compromise, since it would cut down on energy and water waste and avoid potentially harming live animals. That harm starts, they argued, with the way aquarium sources its animals. 

According to an email between Fortgang and the Seattle Aquarium, the aquarium will try to source sharks from “human care,” meaning animals that are already in captivity, but the email did not rule out taking a shark from the open ocean. The advocates worried “yanking a shark” from the wild would disrupt natural ecosystems. 

Not only that, but the sharks and stingrays in the exhibit will be native to the South Pacific, which wouldn’t do much to educate tourists or locals about the waters near Seattle. 

The Seattle Aquarium did not respond to requests for comment, but it responded to that criticism in a Seattle Times article in 2019. 

Tim Kuniholm, an aquarium spokesperson, argued that teaching people about South Pacific sharks would raise awareness about shark conservation everywhere. “It’s one big ocean. What happens on the other side of the planet is just as important as what happens here. We have orcas in peril here. There are animals like sharks that are also in peril over there,” he said. 

The protesters called any illusion to conservation disingenuous. Real conservation does not involve profiting from the incarceration of animals under the guise of spreading awareness, they said. The aquarium’s plan is simply a tourist money grab that doesn’t benefit locals, said Hannah Thompson-Garner, director of advocacy and mission advancement for Northwest Animal Rights Network.

“We want to see the houseless crisis solved. We want to see plants planted in South Seattle for green spaces, and we want what everybody else wants for a nice city,” she said. “A shark tank is not a part of that.”

Last month, Councilmembers Kshama Sawant and Alex Pedersen both voted against the measure to loan the money, arguing it was a waste of taxpayer money, so they might find some allies there. That said, since the bill already passed, the Mayor would need to veto it and send it back for an amendment, which would be a heavy lift. The Mayor’s Office did not respond to requests for comment on the animal rights groups’ demands.