Animal Aid


Posted 1 May 2005

A massive new aquarium which will double as a research laboratory is being planned in Bedford. The NIRAH Project - National Institute for Research into Aquatic Habitats - is the brainchild of a group of scientists, and will house thousands of species of freshwater fish, amphibians and reptiles. Many of them will be wild-caught.

As well as being an aquatic zoo, researchers from the pharmaceutical industry will be able to hire out laboratory facilities on site, to conduct research into the biomedical potential of underwater species. This will include investigating animal toxins, venoms and secretions for use in human medicine. Studies will also be carried out into the most efficient way to farm certain species for their meat in their native countries! Furthermore, NIRAH backers have admitted that 'surplus' animals will be sold to 'collectors'.

The local Bedfordshire councils have given the project their full support, anticipating huge tourist revenues to accompany it. Please voice your opposition to this project, citing all the reasons outlined above. We do have a chance to stop this underwater zoo/research laboratory from going ahead.

To find out how you can help campaign against NIRAH see the action alerts section.

Questions and Answers

The following 'questions and answers', collated by the Captive Animals Protection Society (CAPS), are designed to encourage the public debate about the NIRAH Project and provide answers to common concerns:

What is the NIRAH Project?

The National Institute for Research into Aquatic Habitats plans to build the world's largest freshwater aquarium on a site near Bedford (although the aquarium will also contain some brackish and marine habitats). The project would be based on a 40-hectare site (4 times bigger than the Eden Project) and consist of twin living-rainforest domes housing lakes, lagoons and rivers stocked with thousands of species of freshwater fish, amphibians and reptiles, from crater-lake sharks to rainforest tree frogs.

What animals will be held captive at NIRAH?

Three aquaria and 'a host of smaller aquaria and vivaria' will contain aquatic animals, including a shoal of giant Mekong catfish, the world's largest freshwater fish. According to reports, one dome alone would have 'more than 50 species of freshwater sharks and rays ... as well enclosures for Komodo dragons and giant tortoises.' (1) But they will also make sure they provide sufficient space for 'gift shops and restaurants catering for public visitors' (1). The aquarium will house aquatic or semi-aquatic animals, mostly fish, reptiles and amphibians. But NIRAH have not ruled out keeping mammals, even cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises) or pinnipeds (seals and sealions) (2).

Why is CAPS opposed to the aquarium?

CAPS objects to the captivity of wildlife for entertainment. We believe that zoos (including aquaria) exist primarily to serve tourists. Zoos claim to be essential for saving endangered species and for educating the public about animals, but the unnatural conditions they keep animals in doom any efforts to failure.

Conservation has to be about protecting natural habitats. What education can there be in seeing animals in unnatural conditions, often displaying abnormal behaviours? See the CAPS website for more information.

A study commissioned last year by CAPS found that 90% of UK public aquaria keep animals who display stereotypic behaviours, 79% of the animals had been taken from the wild and 98.2% of the animals do not belong to species classed as threatened.

Will any animals be taken from the wild?

Nirah have told CAPS that 15-20% of all species they intend to display will have been wild-caught (2). This could mean that thousands of individual animals are taken from their natural habitats. Currently, huge numbers of fish wild-caught for aquaria do not survive the journey, or die soon after reaching the aquaria, and are replaced with yet more wild-caught individuals.

Will animal experiments take place at NIRAH?

A major part of NIRAH's plans is an on-site laboratory carrying out research on aquatic or semi-aquatic animals, to investigate the 'biomedical potential' hidden in the toxins, venoms and secretions they produce (3). Although NIRAH are now shying away from even using words like 'experiment' or 'laboratory', it is clear that they will have an on-site laboratory where experiments on animals will take place. Licences from the Home Office to carry out experiments will be required. The only details made public so far are plans to research toxins and secretions through milking snakes and rays for their venom and taking samples from poison dart frogs (2). CAPS believes that these experiments are invasive in themselves, but we are also concerned about what will happen with these venoms and toxins - will they be tested on other animals? Drug-company researchers will be allowed to 'rent' space in the laboratory (3). Coincidentally (or not) there has recently been a run of press articles claiming the benefits of using animals such as reptiles and amphibians in drug research.

What will happen to 'surplus' animals?

As NIRAH plans to breed animals there will soon be too many animals for them to keep. While some of the animals will be passed to other zoos and aquaria, NIRAH have told CAPS: 'Offspring from the more common species - and the more prolific species - will be sold and exchanged to collectors and the more experienced aquatic hobbyist across the world, if the above avenues of disposal have been exhausted' (2). CAPS is concerned about zoos selling animals to private keepers and cannot see how it meets any of the requirements of zoo regulations. Some 'surplus' animals will also be used in NIRAH's research on food production (see below).

What else will go on there?

As well as the public aquarium (a zoo) and laboratory, they will also conduct research into breeding aquatic animals for human consumption. NIRAH told CAPS: 'certain common species will have to undergo field trials to evaluate their suitability for semi-domestication and their reliability as a food resource.' (2) Amazingly, NIRAH have claimed: 'Even UK salmonid farming [salmon farming] has had major environmental benefits, in restoring rivers and protecting the other species that share these ecosystems.' (6). Few environmentalists would share this belief, instead pointing to the huge animal welfare and environmental damage created by intensive fish farming in the UK and elsewhere (for example, see a report by Compassion in World Farming). NIRAH have described animals as 'living gold' (4). CAPS prefer to see animals as sentient beings with the right to a life without being removed from their natural habitats and confined in a zoo.

How much will it cost to build the NIRAH Project?

It will cost an estimated £250 million, with millions of pounds coming from public funds through the local councils, Regional Development Agency and European funding. Private funding will form a major part. The Department of Energy, Productivity and Industry (previously the Department of Trade and Industry) have already given NIRAH a £4m loan to develop a business plan and a final design (5).

NIRAH will have an Ethics Committee - does this satisfy concerns?

No! Ethics committee's are often a way of rubber-stamping projects with little real debate about ethics. Although we would have to wait for details of the 'NIRAH Independent Advisory Committee' to be published to see whether it really is independent, ethics committees used in other industries, such as vivisection, do not provide much hope that they are there to properly protect animals.

What can be done to help the animals?

CAPS are leading a campaign, backed by other organisations such as Animal Aid to prevent this aquarium and animal lab. We are drawing the full facts to the attention of the public and press and lobbying politicians locally and nationally. You can help by writing letters to various MPs and councils (see Animal Aid's action alerts), or contact CAPS for more information.


  1. 'Aquatic domes to dwarf Eden', Times Higher Supplement, 20 August 2004
  2. Correspondence between NIRAH and CAPS, March 2005
  3. 'Science to unlock toxic secrets', Times Higher Supplement, 20 August 2004
  4. 'NIRAH and Freshwater Biodiversity: a preliminary global assessment'. Research compiled by Dr. Steve La Thangue, NIRAH
  5. 'Green light for world's largest aquarium', Guardian, 12 May 2005
  6. 'Frequently Asked Questions Concerning NIRAH's Animal Husbandry and Welfare', NIRAH website, March 2005

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