In mid 2010, Laurie Gage, a doctor of veterinary medicine and inspector for the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, made a site visit to the Morro Bay Aquarium in response to public complaints about the conditions in which animals are held. Later that month, she issued her report with the following conclusion:
- FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- FATE UNSEALED : As lease negotiations continue between Morro Bay city officials and owners of the Morro Bay Aquarium, it remains unclear whether the animals kept there, which have had a historically low life expectancy, will be sent to a new home or provided with expanded facilities in the future.
“This facility has an alarming mortality rate of captive born animals that is over 90 percent for both sea lions and harbor seals. No captive born pinniped has lived longer than 4.5 years after arriving at the aquarium. These animals should be able to live easily into their 20s. … I feel we have a very strong case for confiscating at least the young harbor seal and two young sea lions before they too die at an early age.”
Ultimately, there were no confiscations, no federal penalties levied, and indeed, nothing more than a polite warning from feds. Without making any physical alterations to the seal enclosures, the aquarium went on to pass its last six inspections.
This has been the history of the aquarium for at least the last two decades of its 53-year existence: Citizen complaints lead to federal inspections, which result in little to no action because the aquarium meets the technical requirements of the Animal Welfare Act first adopted in 1966. The lack of any significant federal action leads to yet more citizen complaints.
And thus the cycle continues. Until now.
After decades of controversy surrounding the aquarium—which, according to Naomi Rose of Humane Society International, receives more public complaints than any other similar facility in the country—and at least two instances of federal officials considering levying severe penalties if not outright closure (the last instance occurred in the ’90s when the aquarium lost its ability to take in injured or stranded animals), the most pressing threat to this iconic Morro Bay attraction could come from a bit of obtuse local bureaucracy.
“It’s hard to argue … that that aquarium isn’t due for an update,” said Harbor Director Eric Endersby.
As with all properties that line the Embarcadero, the aquarium is technically a private building that sits on public land leased from the city. With an original lease agreement penned in 1968, the 50-year term of that lease is now approaching crunch time.
The aquarium is one of about a half dozen properties approaching the end of a long-term lease. In order to continue operations under a new lease, city officials have determined that every property must submit plans for improvements. At minimum, all lessees are required to meet modern building codes, extend front sidewalk access to eight feet, and add public walkways behind the buildings along the water.
However, for the owners of the aquarium—Dean and Bertha Tyler—the expectations are a bit higher. According to Endersby, who’s the point person for all of the ongoing lease negotiations, the Morro Bay City Council set out a tentative plan last fall that would require the aquarium to implement significant improvements if it stands a chance of winning a new lease. Though city officials haven’t publicly stated specifics on what they’d like to see, Endersby told New Times that a redevelopment plan for the aquarium site would likely have to include expansions and upgrades to the animal enclosures.
“The city wanted something more than business as usual,” Endersby said.
Early estimates for these upgrades have floated between $1 million and $2 million, which for a facility that draws annual revenues of less than $200,000, would be a significant undertaking. This leaves the Tylers with three options:
1) Propose a major redevelopment plan in hopes of obtaining a new lease or lease extension.
2) Sell the aquarium and let someone else worry about it.
3) Do nothing and let the lease lapse.
“It’s up to the Tylers for them to proceed with a proposal for that lease site,” said Mayor Jamie Irons.
“I think the city wants to see an aquarium use of some sort there,” Endersby said.
But with just five years left in the original lease, any proposed redevelopment plans need to be submitted now in order to have a chance of gaining approval from the city’s planning department and City Council before being put on the table for lease negotiations.
As recently as March 16, the Tylers had submitted precisely nothing. According to Endersby, city officials even proposed a public-private partnership to help with the redevelopment costs in order to keep an aquarium on the Embarcadero.
Aquarium officials have so far asked their supporters to sway city officials by signing a petition and submitting letters explaining why they value the attraction.
Most recently, at a March 25 special study session on the status of all lease negotiations, City Attorney Rob Schultz explained that the Tylers had, in fact, submitted a redevelopment plan. But the Aquarium only submitted plans to extend the sidewalk and add a rear public access walkway, with no mention of other improvements to the animal enclosures.
An aquarium representative declined to comment when New Times asked about the lease status.
And the aquarium’s lease seems to be the biggest project in the city’s lap. At the study session, Endersby and Schultz told the public that the issue will likely have to go before the City Council for a dedicated discussion in the next three to six months.
But several people at the study session took the opportunity to protest the conditions at the aquarium and ask city officials not to grant another lease. SLO resident Randal Husk presented city officials with a petition he said had been signed by more than 160 people. A woman who identified herself as Debbie then stood up and began reading excerpts of online consumer reviews.
“If there’s a hell on Earth, this has to be it,” she quoted.
Claudia Ferriday told New Times that she and a few other people spent the previous weekend protesting in front of the aquarium. While many passersby approached them in support, she said many others confronted them and lauded the aquarium, as well as the Tylers.
In the coming months, the fate of the aquarium could be decided based on its ability to modernize. If the Tylers simply let the lease lapse and close the aquarium, they would have to either sell the animals or adopt them out to an appropriately licensed facility, according to USDA spokesman David Sacks. The same would apply to any third party if the Tylers decide to sell the aquarium and let a third party deal with acquiring a new lease.
Whatever the final outcome is, Endersby told members of the audience at the study session, “There’s going to be a larger process, so keep in tune as we move forward.”
Colin Rigley is a contributor to New Times. He can be reached through Managing Editor Ashley Schwellenbach at firstname.lastname@example.org.