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The Quality of Water: The Second Aquality Symposium for Zoos and Aquariums

The Second Aquality Symposium – Aquality II – will be hosted by Atlantis in the Bahamas from October 19th to 24th, 2014, and will feature a packed programme of not-to-be-missed papers about water quality and water treatment in zoos and aquaria.

Blooloop spoke to two of the main moving forces behind the Aquality initiative: Andy Aiken (right) of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, and Mark Smith (below right) of New England andy aiken national aquarium baltimoreAquarium.

Aquality: The Origins

Mark Smith explained, “The whole Aquality initiative actually started with the 1st International Elasmobranch Husbandry Symposium, held in Orlando in 2001.”

Smith started out with the intention of learning as much as possible about shark care, only to discover that there was no definitive book on shark welfare in existence. Spurred on by what he felt to have been the preventable deaths of two sharks by newbies in the 1990s, he was determined to bring experts in the field of aquatic animal care together with the aim of writing a text book on shark care. He partnered on this initiative with Doug Warmolts of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

The upshot was the Elasmobranch Husbandry Symposium, which aimed to improve the husbandry practises surrounding sharks, skates, rays and so on while mark smith new england aquariumsupporting research initiatives and educating the community about factors threatening them.

Smith said,  “The symposium’s format broke new ground, including as it did an informal peer review and Q&A session, and became a model for other meetings, including Aquality 1 in Lisbon in 2004 as well as the Elasmobranch Symposium’s follow-up meeting, held last November to much acclaim, ”  – and Aquality 2, which is due to take place this October.

“So the Aquality initiative started on the heels of the Elasmobranch Husbandry Symposium. The symposium was finishing up and then a number of movers and shakers in the curatorial world said ‘You know, the next one we have to do is water quality.’”

Both initiatives have been important for the advancement of industry best practice.
Aquality, a voluntary organization coordinated and supported by public aquarium and zoo professionals, has a vision:- to advance and support water quality and water treatment practices in zoos and public aquariums with a view to optimizing the environmental conditions of the plants and animals within their care. This vision is realized through periodic meetings of industry professionals to discuss the development, design, installation and operation of aquatic life support systems in zoos and public aquariums; a definitive reference handbook on water treatment and water quality monitoring in zoos and public aquariums; and an open discussion forum dedicated to any aspect of water quality and aquatic treatment systems in zoos and public aquariums.

atlantis bahamas
 In the industry a common hurdle is the fact that zoos and aquariums don’t always fully understand what they need to do in order to prepare an environment for their collections. These are often non-profit groups who are trying to look for ways to solve problems and, as Andy Aiken put it,  “… haven’t been given the tools they need to do it, and don’t realise they’re shooting themselves in the foot in the meantime… If the problems of water quality can be solved, you’ve solved the root of so many other issues, and until you solve that problem there are so many you can’t really address.” 

Speaking about Aquality’s inception, Aiken added,   “So that’s how it started, and they approached me to set up the speakers for the first Aquality symposium, and another fellow to put together the manuscripts and publish the book, and that poor guy said he would do that and then he got a highly-demanding job as soon as he was supposed to get started, and so it just never happened. So now we have our momentum going again, and we’ll get that book out next year. We’re already well under way.”

The information being put together is available in a variety of formats, probably the most effective of which is to attend the Symposium where, as Aiken puts it,  “… you can hear the speakers; where you can hear the questions; where you can ask questions yourself; you can get involved in the discussions; you hear people’s experiences. That kind of thing is hard to capture in manuscript form or by downloading a PowerPoint. So, obviously, going to the Symposium is probably the strongest way to gain the information. Next would be the manual that we plan to put out, but as I said that’s a peer-reviewed scientific document so there isn’t a lot of anecdotal information. If you make a claim it needs to be supported by hard data or peer-reviewed citation."

girl watches fish at atlantis bahamas aquarium

Making Design Time Go More Smoothly

The purpose of this process is to brush aside for a moment the anecdotal and unsubstantiated information, where people are claiming one method or another is best without the data to support their assertions.  The Aquality manual aims to eliminate that sort of claim: if it can’t be supported by evidence, it won’t be published. 

It will therefore provide a strong reference for those operating and trying to sustain zoos, aquariums and animal collections, and also for architects and engineers who are looking for answers to questions that often come up during design charettes. There is currently no guide or reference manual to provide answers. Aiken commented,  “ I can’t tell you how many project meetings I’ve been in and people say, ‘well, how do you know we need this type of technology or that type of material?’ – or something like that. And there’s no information out there other than a bunch of opinions. So this will go a long way to help solve those problems; make design time go much more smoothly and quickly.”

Aquatic animals inhabit and are tied to their environment in a much more intimate way than we register as land-based animals. Water is so much more than simply H2O: these animals have evolved in a very particular environment that has been stable over millions of years, and expecting them to survive in a set off different water quality parameters is to stress them; to push them beyond their comfort zone, and they will become ill. 

Aquality is necessarily limited to concerning itself with the quality and stability of water for captive aquatic animals. The ocean is, of course, a much larger issue and one that is necessarily beyond its scope.

Nevertheless,  as Aiken points out,  “… in a way, I suppose, you could use the systems we put together, and the fact we can point out quite clearly how the alkalinity and pH of a body of water is directly influenced by how much CO2 is used or removed, as a perfect little micro-model of what’s happening in the world. … At the National Aquarium we have a Rio Negro exhibit where we actually inject CO2 to force a low pH to replicate the Rio Negro environment. It’s exactly what’s happening in our oceans. Yes the Rio Negor exhibit is freshwater, but still, the principle’s the same. Likewise, in order to keep pH high and alkalinity high we remove CO2 from seawater exhibits.”

In  setting up these environments Aiken and people like him are controlling and manipulating exactly what  can’t be controlled in the outside world, and in the process providing a model for oceanacidification on the global scale.

blacktip reef sharks at the national aquarium baltimore

The second Symposium: Key Sessions

Anybody who is influential in life support and water quality for zoos and aquariums will be at Aquality II.

One of the key sessions will be on live coral life support systems; presented by the world’s leaders in corals husbandry. Live corals are really a particular category of their own: it is, apparently, very difficult to keep live corals alive and it’s an ever evolving microcosm within aquatic life support systems.

Another session will be a forum on de-nitrification.  Aiken explained,  “In essence, de-nitrification allows you to get much more use out of your water before you have to discard it. In layman’s terms, it’s a technology that allows you to remove something called nitrate from water. If nitrate becomes too high, it becomes toxic to aquatic life. Typically, the only way of removing nitrate  has been to dump a bunch of the water and replace it with new water. This practice is not very green. We tout ourselves as being the protectors of the environment and yet… at times … we’re using a lot of water in an irresponsible way. De-nitrification is something that is not yet common in aquatic life support systems, because of its complexity or its expense, but we’ve come a long way now and we will be presenting three very viable means – very accessible; very attainable – means, to add that technology to a given life support system. That’ll be a big feature.”

There will also be an energetic session on marine mammal life support systems. There are two approaches to supporting marine mammals in an aquatic environment: one is to use what’s referred to as a chemical system, which uses a lot of chlorine and essentially burns up organics before they can cause algae growth or ammonia accumulation in the pool. An opposite school of thought feels that so much chemical content in the water is probably not healthy for the animals’ skin, their eyes, and their mucous membranes. The alternative is referred to as a biological system, which uses natural bacteria and a process called fractionation to process organic wastes and disinfect the water. This process is much less invasive and  the animals are not exposed to as much chemical content.

“We’ve got a couple of heavy-hitter speakers talking from both sides of that argument in the same session. That should be really interesting. It could be a bit testy. And with all the discussion about marine mammals in captivity – that should add a bit of fuel to that.”

Aiken elaborates,  “Another sort of bugaboo in the industry is that for most aquatic life support systems, if it’s a system that supports Fishes, sharks or invertebrates, you have to establish a live biological filter before you put animals in the tank. This process can take four to six weeks. So one of the presentations will be showing how you can set that cycle up while the rest of the exhibit is being built. It still takes four to six weeks to establish the bacteria, but instead of completing the entire exhibit and LSS construction before starting the bacteria cycle, a small portion of the system is built first and bacteria populate it while the rest of the construction is taking place. Simple concept, but pulling it off is a bit of a water chemistry challenge. That process will be presented – essentially it provides a way to remove four to six weeks of construction schedule.”

new england aquarium cow nose rays  

A Unique Opportunity for Zoo and Aquarium Professionals

The last Aquality symposium was ten years ago in Lisbon.  Aquality is intentionally not designed to be an annual conference, firstly because there is a scientific publication to come out of the meeting, which would be impossible and hardly meaningful on a yearly basis, and secondly, because all those involved are working on a voluntary basis.

Aiken said,  “ There’s nobody making any money on this – and it takes a lot of time to put a high-quality symposium together. If you’re doing it every year it’s hard to have as many as 40 professional presentations by worldwide industry leaders.”

Mark Smith explained that the publication that resulted from the Elasmobranch Husbandry Symposium on shark care is free to download for anyone with an interest in keeping these creatures in alive – the emphasis not on profit but on the dissemination of information in the interest of animal welfare.

Aiken added,  “We’re doing the same thing. All the PowerPoints will be videotaped by Animal Professionals, and the way it works is if you’ve attended the Symposium you have access to that set of information for a year. After a year the PowerPoints are available for viewing by Animal Professionals’ members. And obviously the manuscript will come out – that book will be distributed free to zoos and aquariums globally. It costs about $85, 000US to pull that off, and we pay for it via commercial support and non-profit sponsorships for the Symposium and for the book itself, and their support is acknowledged on the website; at the Symposium and in the book… So it’s a huge voluntary effort to put high quality, relevant, hard science in the hands of workers who need the information, for free.”

Concluding, he added,  “It’s going to be a very good conference, it will provide a unique opportunity for aquarium and zoo professionals to hear from industry leaders, network with their peers and learn about the latest advances in water quality science and technology. No other meeting like it exists!” He also adds, “Don’t wait until next year because there isn’t a next year. The next Aquality will be in 2019!”

For full details and how to register click here.

Images: Manta Ray and resort images kind courtesy Atlantis Bahamas, shark tank National Aquarium and Cownose Rays New England Aquarium.

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