VANCOUVER — Canada’s largest aquarium is struggling to stay afloat in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and could face a permanent closure in the coming months.
The Vancouver Aquarium, which houses over 70,000 animals from spiders to sea lions, warns it will be forced to close permanently unless it secures new funding in the next two months.
The facility first closed to the public on March 17 to abide by social distancing guidelines to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It has laid off 60 per cent of its workforce and downsized operations to the bare minimum in the past month in order to keep its financial head above water.
WATCH: Orcas venture closer to uncharacteristically quiet shores. Story continues below.
But aquarium officials say it can’t last forever. It has lost $3 million in monthly revenue from admissions, cafe and event costs. Meanwhile, maintaining the animal facilities even with a skeleton staff still requires around $1 million a month.
“As a not-for-profit aquarium that receives no government funding for operations, we are almost entirely reliant upon revenues from visitors,” Vancouver Aquarium chief operating officer Clint Wright said in a statement Thursday.
Wright said, unlike many businesses facing closures and reduced service during the pandemic, the aquarium can’t just “turn off the lights and lock the doors” until it’s over.
“Our 70,000 animals still need to be taken care of. They require specialized diets and expert care from veterinary staff, trainers and biologists. Our animals rely on us for managing every aspect of their environment – temperature, salinity, lighting, oxygen,” he said.
As a not-for-profit aquarium that receives no government funding for operations, we are almost entirely reliant upon revenues from visitors.Vancouver Aquarium COO Cliff Wright
Operators have begun looking into contingency plans to rehome the facility’s animals should they be forced to close permanently because of COVID-19, but admitted it is made more difficult by similar situation at aquariums across North America.
The Ocean Wise Conservation Association (OWCA), the Vancouver Aquarium’s parent organization, will face bankruptcy by the summer without additional financial assistance, putting the facility’s ability to continue housing its animals in jeopardy. A permanent closure would also impact the facility’s Marine Mammal Rescue program, the Ocean Wise Sustainable Seafood program and Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup program.
In a statement Thursday, OWCA board chair Randy Pratt called on donors and the provincial and federal governments to step up to support the aquarium. It is accepting donations through its website, and the board has reached out to various provincial and federal agencies looking for emergency assistance.
“We can’t let this organization disappear. It brings so much to the community,” Pratt said.
The aquarium first opened in Vancouver’s Stanley Park in 1956 and averages over a million visitors every year to the facility that houses sea otters, jellyfish, sea lions, insects and other marine life.
It isn’t without controversy, though. The facility has come under fire in the past for housing orcas, beluga whales, dolphins and other cetaceans. It has not kept orcas in captivity since 2001 and has pledged to rely exclusively on captive animals for breeding.
In June 2019 the federal government passed a bill banning the capture and captivity of wild cetaceans, with exceptions for scientific research and wildlife rehabilitation.
Ahead of the bill’s passing, the Vancouver Aquarium shipped its remaining captive beluga whales to a Marineland-owned facility in Spain, and following the bill agreed no longer to put whales or dolphins on display.
The Vancouver Aquarium isn’t the only attraction in Canada facing difficulty in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Toronto Zoo has also put a call out for public financial help to feed its 5,000 animals, which costs around $1 million a year.
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