I don’t know about you, but my DMs were full last week: “What happened to Berlin’s aquarium?!?” Not every city has a cylindrical fish tank in a hotel atrium that cracks and creates a million-litre tsunami through the city centre. People around the world were talking about Berlin (yay!).
I was happy to report: Don’t worry! The Aquarium Berlin is fine! What got destroyed last week was Sea Life Berlin. Let me explain the difference: The Aquarium, part of the Berlin Zoo, was founded in 1913. It currently houses 9,000 animals, including numerous species of jellyfish, poisonous scorpions and spiders, hissing cockroaches, giant sharks, and even arapaima, fish from the Amazon that are the size of motorcycles.
For-profit aquariums are a scam and have no place in civilized society.
Over three floors, the aquarium has a walk-in crocodile enclosure, high-pressure water tanks to simulate deep-sea conditions, and a tube running around the ceiling where ants forage for food. You can even see a tuatara, a kind of proto-lizard that roamed the earth 250 million years ago (before the dinosaurs!) and today only survives on rocky islands off the coast of New Zealand. Tuataras have twice as much DNA as humans! I could go on, but the Berlin Aquarium is the only place in Europe you can see them up close.
In short, the Aquarium is a public institution of conservation and education Sea Life, in contrast, is a for-profit enterprise attempting to simulate an aquarium. Under-lit rooms, background music, and colourful lights create the vibe of a boring club — you might not notice that there aren’t actually that many fish here. The creatures are like what you’d find in a large pet shop.
While you can spend many hours exploring the Aquarium, Sea Life has a single course that you’re herded through in less than 30 minutes. In order to squeeze out a profit, it is still much more expensive — Sea Life charges €15 for a child, compared to €8,50 down the road. But the real-life difference is much greater: You can get a yearly pass at the aquarium for €100, and spend hundreds of hours there.
The catastrophe at Sea Life should make us realize: For-profit aquariums are a scam and have no place in civilized society.
At the moment, Berlin is set to get yet another for-profit aquarium. Coral World is being built at Rummelsburg Bay next to Ostkreuz. The Tagesspiegel is reporting that people are worried sharks could escape into the Spree river. The real danger from private aquariums, however, isn’t shoddy construction.
Billionaires love this trick — let’s call it fishwashing.
As I wrote back in February 2021, Rummelsburg Bay was handed over to realty speculators. Land that once contained cheap housing, a club, and a homeless encampment was violently evicted to make way for luxury condos. The deal was passed by Lichtenberg’s district council in an extremely shady deal, despite a petition signed by 20,000 people, and a protest of 500 outside the meeting where the vote took place. (The district council is run by the left party DIE LINKE, by the way.) The developers include the Padovicz Untrnehmensgruppe, infamous for its associations with all kinds of illegal practices.
Coral World is an attempt to make this corrupt land grab appear like a public interest project. If we hand them over the land, the speculators say, they will create something “educational.” But tickets at other Coral World locations cost up to €40 — these are, in reality, just tourist attractions.
Billionaires love this trick — let’s call it fishwashing. Carlos Slim, the Mexican mafioso and one of the richest men in the world, built the Inbursa Aquarium in Mexico City. Who is going to ask where his money came from when staring at manta rays? Coral World is also a hobby of a billionaire’s son.
If billionaires have more money than they know what to do with, we should make them pay taxes like the rest of us.
Why do politicians go along with this? Coral World is being led by Gabriele Thöne, an SPD politician who was once the deputy to Berlin’s extremely racist and extremely neoliberal finance senator Thilo Sarrazin. While he was lecturing about the genetic inferiority of non-white people, Sarrazin sold off billions of euros worth of public housing at fire-sale prices. German Politicians usually don’t get sacks full of cash for corrupt deals. No, instead, they are compensated later (totally legally!) when they launch second careers as high-paid “consultants.”
Let’s stop fishwashing. Don’t rebuild Sea Life. Stop Coral World. Build affordable housing at Rummelsburg Bay. If billionaires have more money than they know what to do with, we should make them pay taxes like the rest of us. That money could be used to fund actual — i.e. public— aquariums.