29 Jul 2021

Napier councillors defend aquarium but consider closure

7:14 pm on 29 July 2021

Napier City councillors are sticking up for the National Aquarium amid concerns about animal welfare and possible closure.

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Photo: RNZ / Sam Olley / Vinay Ranchhod

Academics, former volunteers and visitors have criticised conditions at the facility.

Napier City Council owns and manages the aquarium and had proposed a $77.5 million upgrade, but is not getting the government backing it hoped for.

When it prepared its pitch for an aquarium rebuild in 2019, it found infrastructure problems were much worse than expected.

"Standards and expectations for animal welfare are struggling to be met", its business case said, and if the issues persisted accreditation would likely be withdrawn, meaning species would need to be re-homed or euthanised.

Problems mentioned included "severely restricted" sizes and access into some exhibits; limited quarantine facilities and inadequate water reticulation; filtration tanks in a "non-operational" state; and "sharp right angles and unsuitable concrete substrates" causing shark injuries.

Mayor Kirsten Wise denies the current infrastructure is failing - she told RNZ that was "too strong a word to use".

"So yes the infrastructure is ageing and parts of it we're having to work really hard with to ensure that it meets the welfare needs of the sea life that's in there. But we have set aside $9m, in our current long term plan for renewals and maintenance."

This money will go to fix corrosion and leaks in some pumps and tanks, to repair and replace heating and chilling coils in exhibits, to improve some access, check on the building's electrics, roof and exterior cladding, and do a complete seismic assessment of the aquarium.

"The reality is that we have to continue to maintain the facility while there is sealife homed there because we have to ensure that they have a safe environment," Wise said.

She said the lack of funding from central government meant closing the facility was "one of the options that we must consider".

Wise believed there was strong community support to keep the aquarium open.

Animal rights lobby group SAFE's sealife chief executive Debra Ashton argued aquariums should be phased out and marine animals should not be in tanks.

"It's unreasonable. It's unnecessary. There is [sic] lots of other ways that people, including children, can learn about fishes without confining them in captivity, and in fact keeping them in there is teaching [children] nothing about the needs of those animals to be able to live their real lives out there in the sea."

The National Aquarium of New Zealand in Napier.

The National Aquarium of New Zealand in Napier. Photo: RNZ / Sam Olley

The National Aquarium is accredited by the Zoo Aquarium Association Australasia, which last completed a report in 2019, but Ashton wants the government to check on animal conditions there and tighten the rules for all facilities keeping fish in New Zealand.

Napier City Council used to also run the marine mammal park Marineland, but it was closed down in 2009. It was still open when Keith Price - who is serving his fifth term on the council - was first voted in.

Speaking to RNZ this week, he wanted the National Aquarium to be maintained, as long as it's not a "major burden on ratepayers".

"Our staff would tell us if it shouldn't be open. So we are guided by that and I am happy that it's okay for the animals."

Fellow councillor Sally Crown (Ngāti Rereahu, Ngāti Tūwharetoa and Ngāti Apakura) wanted to see a "world-class" but "financially prudent" upgrade.

"It absolutely needs some development. The staff there at the moment are absolutely exceptional and incredible, within the industry really well respected."

Councillor Greg Mawson has spent his life in Napier and is fond of the aquarium, but he said its fate was not up to him.

"At the end of the day it is about the community and what they want, but I do quite like the aquarium."

Napier residents are yet to be fully consulted on the aquarium's future. This will happen next year at the earliest.

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