EcoWorld Aquarium’s ‘illegal occupation’ comes to an end

8:55 pm on 16 December 2022
Aquarium at Ecoworld in Picton - single use only

Very "few" animals remain at EcoWorld Aquarium, after Port Marlborough took over the building on Thursday. Photo: Supplied / STUFF

Specialists are checking the health of fish and tuatara left at a Picton aquarium after its owner finally relinquished control of the centre.

Port Marlborough took possession of EcoWorld Aquarium on Thursday after a 16-month dispute and said it had specialists helping rehome the foreshore aquarium's few remaining animals.

A High Court decision released last month ruled EcoWorld Aquarium and Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre owner John Reuhman did not have a right to renew his lease.

Justice David Gendall gave Reuhman 20 working days to vacate the land. He was allowed to rehome animals during that time should he wish to.

EcoWorld Aquarium owner John Reuhman.

EcoWorld director John Reuhman took Port Marlborough to the High Court over claims he had a right to renew his lease. Photo: STUFF / BRYAN INGRAM

A Port Marlborough spokesperson said its property and safety teams were on site undertaking remedial repairs to make the building safe as it was left in a "state of disrepair".

"The welfare of the animals remains our top priority and we have contracted specialist staff to assist in this process.

"Very few animals remain on site, and we will be joined by a specialist vet recommended by the Zoo and Aquarium Association on Friday who will undertake a full health assessment of the remaining tuatara and fish."

Planning for the future use of the site was underway, the spokesperson said.

"We are pleased with the court order, granting Port Marlborough repossession of the land following its illegal occupation for the past 16 months.

"We look forward to consulting with the Marlborough community, iwi and stakeholders on how this site can best serve our community moving forward."

Department of Conservation Marlborough Sounds operations manager Dave Hayes said they were working with iwi and Port Marlborough on rehoming kākāriki/yellow-crowned parakeets and tuatara at EcoWorld.

Seven kākāriki were moved to Pukaha National Wildlife Centre last Monday.

"Arrangements are still being made to move the four tuatara to a suitable new home," Hayes said.

"Port Marlborough is employing three people to look after the tuatara and other animals at the EcoWorld facility.

"These people have experience in caring for tuatara and other animals."

This comes after one of the Brothers Island tuatara died in November and was sent to Massey University to investigate its cause of death. The autopsy has not been completed.

Reuhman, who once claimed the closure of the aquarium would lead to the "slaughter" of animals, did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

A spokesperson from the Ministry of Primary Industries said they did not have any concerns about "releases or relocations", despite the organisation saying in June releasing animals back into the wild was a "complex matter".

It came after MPI had been in contact with Reuhman to offer advice and suggestions around rehoming his terrestrial and marine species.

The spokesperson said Port Marlborough had also been proactive about seeking advice and the relocation of both marine and freshwater species did not require any authorisation from MPI.

The decision from Justice Gendall said Reuhamn had built his case "exclusively" around a letter from his landlord, Port Marlborough, in 2015, offering him a right of renewal of EcoWorld's lease.

Ecoworld in Picton - single use only

EcoWorld on the Picton foreshore. Photo: Supplied / STUFF

But as soon as Reuhman made a counter-offer to - as his lawyer accepted - "chance his hand for better terms", that offer was "extinguished", Justice Gendall said in his decision.

It was a basic principle of contract law that a counter-offer was a rejection of the original offer, Justice Gendall said.

Talks between the two over the next three years discussed a number of "potential changes" to the lease, which included the "possibility" of a right of renewal, the decision said.

Yet throughout all talks - where Reuhman sought to achieve "better rent, future development, and early termination conditions" - no agreement as to a new lease was ever reached.

Justice Gendall said the port was entitled to damages for the costs of removing improvement from the land, including the aquarium and its stock which remained after the 20 working days. Reuhman must also pay any legal costs incurred by Port Marlborough as part of the proceedings.

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