A South African penguin pauses to watch the fish in a exhibit during her exercise walk through the aquarium Thursday, September 10, 2020. The Vancouver Aquarium has had to close its doors to the public due to the lack of visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Vancouver’s shuttered aquarium searching for financial solution amid pandemic

The aquarium needs about $1 million a month to cover its costs

Lillooet stepped out of her travelling cage, stretched her wings, shook her tail feathers and looked around the empty foyer of the Vancouver Aquarium.

The 22-year-old African penguin recently took a stroll outside her enclosure without having to dodge the crowds of people who would normally be watching the shimmering jellyfish or schools of fish in the glass cases that surrounded her.

The aquarium closed its doors on Sept. 7 as it sorts through the financial devastation of COVID-19 on one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations.

Lasse Gustavsson, president and CEO of the aquarium’s operator Ocean Wise, said they need to find a way to function that is profitable and safe during the pandemic.

“So, right now we’re looking at how can we run the pandemic safe operation? How can we attract visitors in the numbers that carry the costs of the operation?” he said in an interview.

“We’re fighting bankruptcy.”

VIDEO: Penguins roam empty halls of Vancouver Aquarium

Ocean Wise was launched in 2017 as a non-profit organization that focuses on global ocean conservation and it signed a new licence agreement last year that allows the aquarium to operate in Stanley Park for the next 35 years.

The Metro Vancouver Convention and Visitors Bureau says the aquarium is the country’s largest and attracts more than one million visitors a year.

The aquarium needs about $1 million a month to cover its costs. With no money coming in from ticket sales, the aquarium is dependent on donations from the public, funding from the federal and provincial governments and dipping into the organization’s savings, said Gustavsson.

Although it closed its gates, he said the Ocean Wise Conservation Association’s other initiatives will continue including the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, its research programs and marine mammal rescue service.

The aquarium, which is home to about 70,000 animals, closed when the pandemic was first declared and when it reopened in June with visitor restrictions, ticket sales were down by almost 80 per cent, causing it to continue operating in the red.

Its board of directors is now trying to find a way of remaining financially viable and accelerating its conservation mission, but Gustavsson said he doesn’t know what that will look like.

“I don’t think anybody knows that,” he added.

Several aquariums and zoos across North America are looking at how to run their operations during the pandemic, he said.

“My guesstimate, and it’s not really underpinned with serious data, is a lot of aquariums in North America would go under this year or next unless we find a very fast solution to the pandemic.”

Gustavsson said he doesn’t know when the Vancouver Aquarium will be open to the public again.

“I don’t think it’s realistic to expect any visitors in the aquarium before maybe June next year at the very earliest,” he said.

“We will open again, one day, somehow.”

READ MORE: Vancouver Aquarium to shut its doors, focus on new business model amid COVID-19 losses

The aquarium has laid off 209 full-time, part-time and casual positions, leaving it with 75 staff to take care of the animals.

It is home to a number of animals that have been rescued and are now cared for by its keepers including a California sea lion blinded by gunshot and a two-month-old otter named Joey that was found on Vancouver Island next to a dead adult presumed to be his mother.

Jim Facette, executive director of Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums, said almost every similar organization in the country is facing challenges to “varying degrees.”

Cherry Brook Zoo in Saint John, N.B., had to close its doors permanently earlier this year because of financial hardships that were compounded by COVID-19.

Facette said there will be a place for zoos and aquariums after the pandemic because of the healing power of animals, including the Vancouver Aquarium.

“I’m confident that they’ll be back sometime in the new year. When? I don’t know,” he said.

“Is there a possibility of things going sideways? That possibility exists for anybody, so I can’t give you a 100 per cent guarantee but I’m very, very confident in senior management.”

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CoronavirusVancouver Aquarium

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Vernon Fire Rescue Services work to put out a structure fire in an abandoned house on Highway 97 and 39th Avenue Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. (Caitlin Clow - Vernon Morning Star)
UPDATE: Vernon house fire under control

Single-lane traffic remains in effect on Highway 97 in both directions

Vernon once again boasts the lowest gas prices in B.C. Oct. 20, 2020. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
Vernon boasts lowest gas prices in B.C.

Gas going up, and down, throughout the North Okanagan

COVID-19 test tube. (Contributed)
test tube with the blood test is on the table next to the documents. Positive test for coronavirus covid-19. The concept of fighting a dangerous Chinese disease.
Interior Health launches online booking for COVID-19 tests

Testing is available to anyone with cold, influenza or COVID-19-like symptoms

École de L’Anse-au-sable. (Google Maps)
COVID-19 confirmed at Kelowna Francophone school

École de L’Anse-au-sable is not affiliated with local SD23

FILE – People wait in line at a COVID-19 testing facility in Burnaby, B.C., on Thursday, August 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
167 new COVID-19 cases, 1 death recorded as B.C. enters 2nd wave

Three new healthcare outbreaks also announced

Paul Singla walks towards his Penticton home on Heather Road in 2018 after CBSA officers raided it. (File photo)
Singla and Toor make first court appearances on immigration fraud

The Okanagan men had their cases adjourned until 2021

A glimpse of some of the 480 (approx) cars written off as a result of the acid spills along the Trail highway in 2018. Photo: Trail Times
Kootenay Ford dealer’s frustration grows with ICBC

Trail AM Ford owner Dan Ashman says he just wants fair compensation from ICBC

Mail-in ballot from Elections BC (Katya Slepian/Black Press Media)
At least 26% of eligible voters have already cast a ballot, Elections BC says

Voters can cast a ballot until 8 p.m PST on Election Day

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A 2018 decision to fly a rainbow flag ended up costing the City of Langley $62,000 in legal fees (Langley Advance Times file)
Human rights win in rainbow flag fight cost B.C. city $62,000

“Lengthy and involved” process provoked by complaint

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is seen during a news conference Tuesday October 20, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau and his family decide against trick-or-treating this year due to COVID

Adhering to local health authorities, Trudeau urges Canadians to do their part in following those guidelines

Surrey RCMP cruisers outside a Newton townhouse Tuesday night. (Photo: Shane MacKichan)
Toddler in hospital, woman dead following stabbings at Surrey townhouse

Police say two-year-old was among victims found at townhouse complex in the 12700-block of 66 Avenue

Most Read