By Severin Carrell

Thousands of fish and animals in Britain's aquariums are suffering sickness, distress and physical abuse, a damning report by animal rights campaigners has revealed.

The investigation found that dozens of aquariums keep animals such as rays, sharks, puffer fish, crabs and squid that are scarred and deformed, behave abnormally, or are mishandled by staff and visitors.

Video footage released by the Captive Animals' Protection Society (Caps) shows a starfish which lost a limb through being manhandled, children throwing diseased crabs into pools, sharks being held out of their pools to be touched, and staff forcing rays to swim out of the water to feed.

The society also claims that few aquariums are involved in genuine conservation work. Caps alleges that more than 80 percent of aquarium animals are caught in the wild and are very rarely used in breeding programmes to save endangered species.

The allegations, to be published in a report titled Suffering Deep Down, are a serious blow to the reputation of Britain's aquariums, which are key attractions in many seaside towns. The number of aquariums has leapt from one in the late 1970s to around 55 today.

The Caps findings have been backed by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Its marine scientific officer, Laila Sadler, said tens of thousands of fish died in British aquariums each year and thousands died in transit to them.

The Caps investigation was carried out by zoologist Jordi Casamitjana, a former zoos expert for the Born Free Foundation. He visited 31 public aquariums undercover earlier this year and claims that:

  • Rays and sharks in more than 20 aquariums showed abnormal behaviour such as "surface breaking", where they poke their heads above the water, often because they are "trained" to feed that way.

  • Animals in three-quarters of aquariums were ill, deformed or scarred.

  • Only one species seen in these aquariums, a Humboldt penguin, is part of the European endangered species programme despite claims that these centres play a key role in conservation.

    The allegations were rejected by several of Britain's best-known aquariums.

    Mark Oakley, a spokesman for the chain of six SeaLife aquariums, said their centres had an "animal welfare record second to none". This included employing vets, setting up an ethics committee and keeping careful records of ill-health incidents.

    "It would be silly for me to suggest that creatures in our care don't sustain the occasional wound or illness just as they would out in the open sea," he said.

    The Deep in Hull has close links to marine biologists at the city's university, and Colin Brown, its chief executive, worked on North Sea conservation projects. He said official licensed inspections were designed to check on the points raised by Caps.

    "There are no doubt good and bad aquariums, but the good that aquariums do for the oceans is vital and should not be underestimated." - The Independent