Vancouver Aquarium turns to donors and members to stay afloat

Ocean Wise Conservation Society is now drawing off reserves to get through COVID-19 restrictions that have slashed revenues

Ocean Wise president and CEO Lasse Gustavsson announced Monday the aquarium in Stanley Park will close to the public until a new business plan incorporating COVID-19 physical distancing measures is put in place | Photo: Dan Toulgoet

The Vancouver Aquarium is hoping additional donations and a patient group of members will keep the facility running safely and soundly for its animal residents, despite its indefinite closure to the public.

Ocean Wise president and CEO Lasse Gustavsson announced Monday the aquarium in Stanley Park will close to the public until a new business plan incorporating COVID-19 physical distancing measures is put in place.

The aquarium had lost over $2 million over the two months it had been open with limited capacity and ticket sales were down 80% during its otherwise busiest time of year.

“We are already burning our reserves,” said Gustavsson, adding the Ocean Wise board of directors has yet to find an approach to adequately monetize public visits in a limited capacity.

The not-for-profit group – which advocates for marine habitat restoration and animal protection and rescue – has terminated 209 staff positions as of September 7, the last day before the indefinite closure.

But as long as there are reserves and donations coming in, the group will continue to care for the existing animals at the aquarium, from sea lions to small fish.

“The wellbeing of our animals remains our top priority and during our temporary closure, our team of 75 specialists – including biologists, animal care experts, water quality technicians and veterinary staff – will remain onsite at the Vancouver Aquarium to provide uninterrupted animal care,” Gustavsson stated online. 

Gustavsson told Glacier Media that once the aquarium re-opens Ocean Wise would be offering an extension of the annual memberships based on the time the facility is closed.

“We hope most members will accept this.

“I hope people will think generously; if not they can go to our website for more information,” said Gustavsson.

He said all aquariums are grappling with the financial difficulties COVID-19 restrictions have placed on them. The Vancouver Aquarium will look at condensing tanks to save on energy costs, said Gustavsson.

Ocean Wise Conservation Society earned $42.3 million in revenue in 2019, of which $21.7 million was from admissions and memberships, according to its annual report. Its retail store brought in close to $8 million. Grants and donations accounted for $7.1 million. The group spends 28% of its revenue on animal care and habitat and 19% on “citizen action and field projects, research and education.”

The rest of the expenses go to marketing, retail operations and administration.

Charity Intelligence Canada gave Ocean Wise a B- on its report, saying for every dollar it raises just 27 cents goes to programs. Ocean Wise has 10 employees earning over $120,000, including one who earns over $350,000, according to Canada Revenue Agency filings for 2018.

Annual audited statements are only upon request, states CIC, and its 2018 statement shows reserves at $11.4 million. The group spent $4 million on “animal care” specifically in 2018. 

Ocean Wise has 786 “partners” across Canada who are designated as sustainable producers of seafood. The group is also active in promoting the end of single-use plastics and shoreline clean-ups.

In October 2018, the group acquired a 20% interest in Kingu Mexicana, a for-profit aquarium operator in Mazatlán, Mexico, the 2018 statement states.

The Vancouver Aquarium has been subject to ongoing criticism for its continued captivity of mammals, in particular, from the Vancouver Humane Society.

In 2017 the aquarium filed a lawsuit against the City of Vancouver for its cetacean ban in the city’s parks. In June, 2019, Ocean Wise dropped the lawsuit and agreed to the ban.

gwood@glaciermedia.ca