Opinion: Our Vancouver Aquarium needs to be saved from closing forever

Apr 16 2020, 7:30 pm

Businesses across all sectors and not-for-profit organizations are struggling to stay afloat in the unprecedented economic crisis induced by COVID-19, and the Vancouver Aquarium is absolutely no exception.

The permanent closure of this storied institution would be a profoundly devastating loss to who we are as a city, considering what it has provided us over its 65-year history.

The aquarium has announced it may be forced to close forever early this summer if it depletes its limited financial reserves and does not receive emergency operating funding.

As of today, the attraction at Stanley Park has been temporarily closed for a month. There have been no visitors, and that translates into zero admission and retail revenue — losses of about $3 million every month, entering the peak season for the attraction.

But unlike Science World and the Vancouver Art Gallery, a temporary closure of the aquarium still carries significant operational costs. With living and breathing responsibilities under its care, a temporary closure is certainly not just a matter of turning off the lights.

The aquarium has already cut its non-essential expenses significantly to focus its reserves on the operational basics of animal care and facility expenses. Over the past few weeks, it laid off 331 staff (totalling 60% of the workforce), closed the satellite Marine Mammal Rescue Centre hospital and care facility east of Crab Park, suspended important maintenance projects, and reviewed its conservation, research, and education work.

Even with the reductions, there is still $1 million in monthly operating costs to provide basic animal care and habitat costs for over 70,000 animals, including rescued sea otters, sea lions, seals, jellies, fish, birds, and insects.

In 2018, the aquarium reorganized itself under Ocean Wise, which was previously one of the aquarium’s off-shoot sustainability initiatives. Instead, the tables have turned as Ocean Wise Conservation Association is now the non-profit parent organization of the facility and its far-reaching work.

Based on the aquarium’s latest financial statements, for the 2018 fiscal year, Ocean Wise had a $37.98 million budget in 2018, with $7.4 million going towards facility operations, $4.04 million for animal care, $5 million for general administration, $4.6 million for marketing and external relations, and $6.05 million for conservation, research, and education.

During this same year, the aquarium saw $21.8 million of its revenue from admissions and membership, accounting for well over half of its $38.2 million in total revenues. Another revenue segment that depends on visitors was retail and concessions, which generated $7.5 million. Other sources were $5.5 million from grants and donations, $2.3 million from interest and sundry, and $1.1 million from programs.

When you pay admission or a membership, you are supporting the cost of both animal care in the aquarium, and the cost of the added mandate of meaningful conservation, research, and education.

Altogether, the aquarium has a self-supporting business model that depends on the market economy, which is currently broken.

As a not-for-profit organization, its net profits go back towards reinvesting into the facility, animal care, the various marine science and rescue work, and even shoreline cleanups.

But it also needs to operate strategically like a business considering the complexities, market realities, and huge costs of operating a major aquarium without any operational funding from government, while also adding on extra expenses for world-class conservation, research, and education that many other aquariums and zoos do not have.

This contrasts greatly with the Toronto Zoo, which is currently fundraising to help cover the lost admission and parking revenues that typically cover the $1 million in annual costs to feed their animals. But it has the City of Toronto as a backstop, as the municipal government owns, operates, and maintains the attraction.

Other zoological facilities that do not have a government backstop have issued dire warnings of the measures they may be forced to take if they run out of financial reserves to acquire food for their animals. The storied Berlin Zoo stated this week it will feed its animals to other animals as a last resort, with only a polar bear to be spared at the end.

The aquarium currently has no such grim food chain plan for the worst-case scenario of running out of reserves for food and habitat care. There could be an effort to relocate the animals, but that too carries significant costs and is not a guaranteed solution for all animals.

With aquariums and zoos around the world also experiencing health safety closures and seeing a collapse in their revenues, they are likely weary with the proposition of having extra mouths to feed and care for.

In the shadow of Blackfish, contrary to the claims of activists, the aquarium is anything but like SeaWorld — it is nowhere close to being a traditional zoo, never mind a theme park.

Misinformation and myths have unfairly dogged the aquarium and its good work in recent history of being a home for rescued mammals deemed unreleasable by the federal government. These mammals who are sick, injured, and/or orphaned are treated at Canada’s only dedicated marine mammal rescue, hospital, and care facility, with attempts made to rehabilitate and release the mammal whenever possible.

The rapidly increasing threats of species extinction due to climate change and other human activity create a need for responsible aquariums and zoological facilities that are effectively an insurance policy for wildlife under risk.

The aquarium’s recent shift under Ocean Wise attracted conservationist Lasse Gustavsson, who became the president and CEO of the parent organization in 2018. He previously led some of the world’s largest ecological conservation organizations; he was the executive director of World Wildlife Foundation International and Oceana, and the policy and science director of Greenpeace.

Over the decades, the aquarium has inspired a generation to pursue careers in marine biology and zoology.

The aquarium attracts one million visitors annually. It has made countless impressions on children who later became more interested in our natural world, and in their teenage years, many have returned to the aquarium as volunteers, which currently number 1,300.

But it takes an international community to support an attraction like the aquarium. As one of the largest tourist attractions in the city, there is a symbiotic relationship between the aquarium’s self-supporting operational model and the local tourism industry.

It is a generator for local tourism. Without the aquarium, Vancouver loses one of its largest destination attraction offerings that support tourism, which accounts for a significant proportion of the region’s economic activity.

The aquarium is irreplaceable in so many ways, and there needs to be an urgency from the provincial and federal governments to provide this institution with the emergency funding it requires so that it can weather through this crisis.

For those in the community that are able, you can also donate to the Vancouver Aquarium on their website and purchase memorabilia from their online gift shop.

Kenneth ChanKenneth Chan

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