It's been called the 'worst aquarium in the nation ... Seal Guantanamo,' and the 'saddest aquarium on earth.' Under fire since the 90s, conservation groups are stepping up their efforts to have Morro Bay Aquarium closed down.
The aquarium, home to three harbor seals, a sea lion and other aquatic animals, first opened its doors in 1960, and pro-animal groups say that little has been done to upgrade the facility since then.
Naomi Rose, the senior scientist for Humane Society International (HSI), even told the New Times, that the small aquarium in Morro Bay, California, "receives more public complaints than any other similar facility in the country."
Owned by Dean and Bertha Tyler, the aquarium is virtually unchanged in 53 years of operation. It is an issue that is creating waves across the animal protection community and garnering heat from the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), who is suggesting that the Tylers are currently operating the facility under false advertising.
Signs posted at Morro Bay Aquarium claim that all of its seals are rescued and rehabilitated, "yet it lost its license to rehabilitate animals in the 90s," said Paige Nelson from the conservation group, Fins and Fluke. "One sign reads Marine Rehabilitation Center," she explained, "then other signs state: These animals were born at Marine World, Orlando, Florida and Feed the performing seals," Nelson added.
This aquarium has also been accused of filing tax returns with a tax-exempt status, under the name Morro Bay Marine Rehabilitation Center, claiming to be a rehabilitation facility. Marine Mammal advocate Sammarye Lewis, said:
They are not licensed by the State of California as a Rehabilitation facility and never have been. Here is their 2011 Form 990-F tax return. Look at Page 12, XVI-B "Relationship of Activities to the Accomplishment of Exempt Purposes" and draw your own conclusions.
Image courtesy Fins and Fluke
A sign at Morro Bay Aquarium suggests all of its animals are rehabilitated. Not so say conservation groups who claim that the aquarium lost its rehab license in the 90s.
Humane Society International is taking its fight to the city council. HSI is asking the city of Morro Bay not to renew the aquarium's 50-year lease when it expires in 2018. Fins and Fluke are looking for a complete shutdown of the facility as soon as possible and are currently petitioning city council members plus the town's mayor, to intervene and relocate its animals to a more fitting environment.
Given the citation history and complaints against Morro Bay Aquarium, opposition groups to the facility may just have a point.
Umpteen violations yet still in operation
"Morro Bay Aquarium was cited for 22 violations of the Animal Welfare Act just between April 2009 and August 2010," Nelson told Digital Journal. In an article at the New Times published last March, Colin Rigley cited a mid 2010 visit by Laurie Gage, a doctor of veterinary medicine and inspector for the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).
Gage ended up concluding:
"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."
Yet nothing was done, and the aquarium passed, "it's last six inspections," Rigley said.
The devil's in the details
The facility itself, met, "the technical requirements of the Animal Welfare Act first adopted in 1966," said Rigley, but the inspections were prompted by visitor complaints. Complaints that have been prolific to say the least -- even online.
At Yelp.com for example, the Morro Bay Aquarium has just a two-star rating out of a potential five-stars. One local person wrote:
As a Morro Bay resident, I am truly ashamed that this "aquarium" exists in its current conditions ... The entire place smells of mold and the dark lighting is frightening. The tanks are curated with cinder blocks, the signage is outdated and there appears to be too many animals per tank. The floors, tanks, and rails are filthy and rusted over -- I would not let my child anywhere near this place until some serious renovations occur!
But another person disagreed and said:
I was shocked to see so many negative reviews on here. I know the space is small where the sea lions live but it doesn't look like they are suffering to me. I think people tend to overreact and I personally don't feel that the animals mind where they are living.
This response was countered by a third visitor, who fired back:
This old dinosaur is just a tarnished tank. Anyone who thinks the animals here "don't mind" living in slimy, tight enclosures must have had their heart removed.
Still, Dean and Bertha Tyler (94 and 89 respectively), "are applying to the city to renew the family’s lease," said the Tribune, who added that the couple had also submitted paperwork for improvements, just not to the animal enclosures.
According to Eric Endersby, director of the city of Morro Bay's Harbor Department, the couple will, "have to propose something more substantial," to sway the city, he said. The Tylers will have until a June 25 city council meeting, which will determine, "whether to open the lease to the public or to hear a new proposition from the Tylers," the Tribune said.
On the eve of the meeting, Fins and Fluke will lodge a protest of their own. "We are planning a mass call in and fax on June 24th," Nelson said, "to all of the officials that we are petitioning."
Meanwhile, the Fins and Fluke activist is urging people to watch the video on the Morro Aquarium (above), and then sign a petition to the city of Morro at Change.org.
"This place is so run down and pitiful for animals," Nelson said, "that if they cared for them, they would let them go. These animals can be rehabbed or at least sent to a reputable sanctuary," she added.