Animal rights activists have criticized an Aug. 8 vote by the Seattle City Council to approve a new $67 million loan for the Seattle Aquarium’s Ocean Pavilion expansion.
Planning for the project began in 2014, with approval from the city council coming at the end of 2019. Construction for the Ocean Pavillion started in December 2020, with completion expected in 2024.
The Northwest Animal Rights Network (NARN), a local advocacy organization, came out strongly against the Ocean Pavillion project, citing concerns with the aquarium’s treatment of animals and a desire to see the funds put to use on other projects.
According to NARN policy director Hannah Thompson-Garner, the new expansion would cause harm to the tropical sharks living in the new tanks.
“It’s a relatively small tank for a shark,” Thompson-Garner said. “Sharks are migratory animals, so they swim long, long distances in the wild.”
While the negative psychological effects of captivity have been well documented in some animals like dolphins, there is comparatively little research into the impact on sharks.
Thompson-Garner also said that the Aquarium had a bad track record with animal welfare, claiming that, between 2015 and 2019, most of the 500 tropical fish that were captured and brought over from Hawaii died. She also said that there have been multiple instances of octopuses escaping their tanks.
Thompson-Garner further said many of the animals for the new Ocean Pavilion could be wild-caught, contributing to the unethical or outright illegal wildlife trade.
In an email to Real Change, Aquarium spokesperson Emily Malone wrote that the institution has a strong track record on animal rights.
“We have decades of experience nurturing animals’ nutritional, mental, environmental and social well-being,” she wrote.
Malone continued that the Aquarium fully complies with all applicable wildlife protection laws and treaties and that all the sharks and rays will be “either born in human care or rescued from commercial fishing enterprises.” However, for some other animals that are only obtainable in the wild, Malone said that the Aquarium will purchase them from dealers who comply with the relevant ethics and sustainability regulations.
The Aquarium was a fully city-run and -owned institution until 2010, when the Seattle Aquarium Society (SEAS) was incorporated to take over day-to-day operations. However, Seattle still owns the Aquarium’s buildings and has significant say over its long-term decisions.
As part of this partnership with SEAS, Seattle previously allocated more than $4.7 million to Ocean Pavilion planning efforts. In 2019, the city provided a further $34 million for the expansion, and, in 2022, the City Council provided a temporary $20 million loan to help finish construction for the project.
Between 2019 and 2023, Ocean Pavilion costs have ballooned from $113 million to $160 million. The new $67 million variable rate loan, which would be privately financed through PNC Bank and have a starting interest rate of less than 7.5%, is supposed to help the Aquarium finish construction and pay back the city its $20 million. According to Malone, SEAS has already netted 84% of its $80 million fundraising goal and will repay the loan “years ahead of schedule” with future revenue and donations.
Thompson-Garner said that money Seattle has invested in the Ocean Pavilion project, which comes from excise taxes on the sale of real estate, could have been better used to address issues like affordable housing or transportation.
“We have not heard of any concern from any of the council members, except for Councilmember Sawant and Councilmember Pedersen, regarding this amount of taxpayer money that's going to this tourist attraction,” she said. “The rest of the council members have either been silent, or they’ve been like Councilmember Strauss — just totally written it off and sort of thrown it back in the taxpayers’ faces that we don’t have a say in whether our taxes are going towards infrastructure or going towards a tourist trap. So it’s very insulting.”
Read more of the Aug. 16-22, 2023 issue.