Field of Fish Dreams: Is a Major League Ballpark Aquarium a Bad Idea?

Bam! The sound is easily heard by the first 20 rows of fans cheering wildly in the 11th inning of a tie game between the Miami Marlins and the Philadelphia Phillies.

Thwump! A speed-of-sound vibration courses through a 250-gallon tropical marine aquarium embedded in a cement wall that's located between third base and home plate. A dirty smudge persists, like an erasable tattoo, on the bulletproof glass from the loud impact of the 95-mile-an-hour foul tip.

Major League Animal Drama

The place is the shiny new Marlins South Florida Park, home to the National League's Miami Marlins. Despite protests from animal welfare activists, animal behaviorists and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the ballpark is set to open with two large saltwater aquariums full of tropical fish, crabs, snails, sea urchins, sea stars and a host of other creatures native to the Caribbean and the western Atlantic Ocean.

Your initial knee-jerk reaction to this might be, “Are you kidding me? Ornamental fish on display in a busy, loud and perhaps even dangerous ballpark? What about all the noise? And bats and balls hitting the glass? Or unruly fans spilling beer and who knows what else near the aquariums?”

You wouldn’t be alone.  

Now let’s remove the emotion from the discussion and review the evidence-based data that we can apply to the situation. As you might imagine, the scientific literature isn't rich with papers about how flying baseballs, screaming fans and nighttime game lights can impact tropical marine fish and invertebrates. But there are some articles and data that can be applied.

Fish don’t possess external ear openings, but they can detect sounds quite effectively. Many fish species, like grunts, croakers and drums produce sounds as a means of communication or warning. Certain taxonomic groups of fish, such as cyprinids (minnows, carps, shiners, danios), are more sensitive to sounds than other groups, like percids (perch).

Stress Can Also Take a Toll on Fish

Disturbing noises can apparently affect immune function in rainbow trout. A 1994 study identified decreased white blood cell activity in trout exposed to confinement and prolonged noise. Researchers examining the impact of motorized boat racing on wild fish in an Austrian lake found that largemouth bass can also become stressed — showing a markedly elevated heart rate and increased cardiac output — when exposed to boating noises. Certain fish were even able to detect and react to watercraft that were up to several hundred meters away.

It seems clear that fish can not only pick up on noises, but the disturbances can have at least a temporary negative effect, especially if the sounds punctuate the status quo of background noise and vibrations.

Underwater ship noise in two Austrian lakes and the Danube River led to increased plasma cortisol levels (an indicator of stress) in several fish species — but the same fish did not appear to be affected when exposed to Gaussian (random or background) noise. This may explain why fish living in more traditional captive environments, like aquariums and ponds, can survive — and even thrive — despite constant noise from pumps, aerators, filtration equipment, crowds, loudspeaker announcements and even music.

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