As the debate over the future of the Morro Bay Aquarium begins to solidify in public, one thing is already clear: This will be a fight of hearts over minds.
On May 2, residents gathered for the first official public hearing with the city’s Harbor Advisory Board over the lease agreement for the controversial facility, which has occupied its space along the Morro Bay Embarcadero for approximately 50 years.
People who spoke were divided roughly three to one between long-time residents who adore the Morro Bay staple and literally cooed with affection during speeches from owners Dean and Bertha Tyler; and animal rights advocates who argued the aquarium is too old, too cramped, and a blight on the city’s tourism draw.
In May 2012, New Times reported that the aquarium had received deluges of criticism and monikers such as “the saddest aquarium on Earth,” in addition to praise and adoration from long-time residents. Since then, the arguments over the aquarium have played out through social media; regular weekend protests staged outside the aquarium; and, most recently, through letters and petitions to city officials.
Harbor Director Eric Endersby prefaced the May 2 hearing by noting that the board doesn’t usually weigh in on such issues, but “this lease site is a pretty unique lease site, and it’s got a long history and there’s a lot of passion and emotions on both sides of it.”
At issue is the aquarium’s 50-year lease from the city, which is set to expire in 2018. City officials contacted the Tylers last year to begin the process of refurbishing the facility to meet modern codes—at a minimum—and perhaps upgrade the enclosures for seals, sea lions, and other non-mammalian animals that are housed there. The Tylers didn’t respond to those requests, prompting city officials to prepare a Request for Proposal, which was never completed due to staff constraints.
The Tylers recently submitted what Endersby called a “modest proposal,” and city officials have meanwhile been inundated with public comments both for and against the aquarium.
While about 15 people spoke in favor of the aquarium—including the Tylers, who emphasized that visitors like feeding the seals and sea lions—their arguments fell into a handful of categories: the Tylers are community treasures, critics either embellish or outright lie about the aquarium’s fallbacks, kids love the attraction, it’s educational, and the seals are probably fatter and happier than they would be in the wild.
Critics, however, point to the aquarium’s historically low life expectancy for the animals it houses, cramped enclosures, and frequent warnings from the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). (On April 3, for example, APHIS issued a warning to aquarium operators because “the corner edges of a platform used as dry resting area at the east side of the primary enclosure is [sic] in disrepair.”)
One woman choked back tears as she read through a list of seals and sea lions that have died prematurely at the aquarium, prompting groans from some other audience members.
“A lot of people coming out—young people of my generation—are very disturbed by what they see, and they will not be coming back to Morro Bay because of their experience,” she said.
While advisory board members didn’t discuss the issue at length, they each briefly weighed in. A majority of board members seemed in favor of continuing the aquarium, perhaps with a few upgrades. The issue is scheduled to go before the city council on June 25.