More troubling news is coming out about an Idaho aquarium with connections to the soon-to-open Austin Aquarium.
According to the Idaho Statesman, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in April confiscated three puffins from the Boise, Idaho, aquarium because it did not have a federal migratory bird permit.
The aquarium obtained four of the birds from the Alaska Sealife Center, according to the Idaho Statesman, but aquarium marine biologist Nate Hall confirmed for the newspaper that one died before the others were taken away.
In June, the aquarium applied for a migratory bird permit with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to get the birds back, but the permit was denied because the staff had no puffin care experience, no adequate puffin enclosure, the birds came into contact with the public and a permit cannot be issued to anyone with a felony wildlife violation, according to a letter from the federal agency provided to the newspaper.
The letter additionally stated, “Photos on record of beverage containers floating in the puffin tank at an after-hours party. This is an unhealthy condition.” The letter also said aquarium visitors were allowed to feed the puffins, though the public is never supposed to come into contact with the migratory birds.
Ammon Covino, who co-founded the Idaho Aquarium, and Chris Conk, the former director, are scheduled to plead guilty later this month in federal court in Florida to illegally purchasing marine animals in that state without proper permits and transporting them to the Idaho Aquarium. They’re accused of buying four eagle rays and two lemon sharks for public display, according to the newspaper.
Conk already pleaded guilty in 2012 to charges of illegally smuggling coral. The board of the nonprofit aquarium told the Idaho Statesman both men are no longer on the board and have ceased involvement with the aquarium. The names of the current board members were withheld from the newspaper.
Another aquarium in Portland, Oregon, co-founded by Ammon Covino and his brother Vince Covino, is under investigation by the Oregon Humane Society after several former employees, including a marine veterinarian, complained about animal deaths and cutting corners at the operation. One former employee leaked a death log to the Portland Oregonian newspaper which indicated dozens of animal deaths from a myriad of causes, including illness, starvation, being sucked into the filtration system and eaten by other fish.
The aquarium owners denounced the report, saying the mortality rates at the aquarium are the same or better than other aquariums in the U.S., according to the Oregonian. They said the complaints were made by disgruntled former employees or people who don’t understand marine life care. Later Vince Covino released a statement saying they’d be reviewing their policies to see if there is room for improvement.
The Idaho Statesman obtained a similar death log about animal deaths at the Idaho Aquarium, but former employees dispute its accuracy. The death of the puffin is not listed on the copy of the log held by the newspaper, and five sources tell the newspaper a giant Pacific octopus is also unaccounted for.
One giant Pacific octopus, Mortimer, is listed on the death log as killed by toxicity. A former employee of the aquarium interviewed by the Idaho Statesman said he was ordered to change the water less frequently than recommended for the octopus to save money. He also told the newspaper he was ordered to put a chameleon with a broken pelvis in the freezer to kill it. When he refused, Conk did it himself, the former employee told the newspaper.
Though the Austin Aquarium has not yet opened, it’s already had some permitting issues with the city.
The aquarium was keeping fish on site without a permit, until city officials ordered Vince Covino to remove them until he obtained the right approvals.
In an extended Q & A distributed by the aquarium about the controversy, Vince Covino said he mistakenly believed the permits the aquarium had obtained allowed animals to be on site.
“We inaccurately presumed that holding our animals on site was not out of compliance with city guidelines,” he wrote. “When a city official performing a routine inspection requested that we relocate our quarantine to an offsite location, the animals were relocated to an offsite location immediately. Offsite quarantine locations are not atypical in the aquarium industry, and the animals receive the exact same quality of care offsite as they do onsite.”
Vince Covino, also in the Q & A, says the Austin and Portland Aquariums are unrelated to the nonprofit Idaho Aquarium, though Vince and his brother Ammon opened the for-profit Portland Aquarium together.