The Vancouver Aquarium announced today (April 15) that it has been sold to a U.S company that owns the Harlem Globetrotters touring basketball act and the Dollywood amusement park in Tennessee.
The new owner, Herschend Enterprises, is an Atlanta, Georgia-based theme-park and tourist-attraction operator that runs and co-owns (with country-music star Dolly Parton) the famous Dollywood attraction as well as about nine other amuusement parks, water parks, and other tourist facilities, all in the U.S.
Herschend also owns and runs two other aquariums, in Kentucky and New Jersey, along with several dinner-show enterprises and lodging and campground concerns.
The popular Vancouver tourist attraction blamed "severe financial challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic" for the transfer of ownership.
In a news release, the nonprofit Ocean Wise Conservation Association, which has run the aquarium since 2017, said the sale "ensures that Vancouver will continue to have a world-class aquarium with the financial strength to continue building on its 64-years of success as an animal care and animal rescue facility, a cherished educational venue, and one of B.C.’s top tourist and event destinations".
The release also said that although the aquarium will be 100-percent owned by Herschend, chief operating officer Clint Wright, who has been with the facility for more than 30 years, will continue to head up operations.
“This is a very positive outcome that secures both the future of the Vancouver Aquarium and the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre,” Wright said in the bulletin. “I have been fortunate to spend almost my entire career at the Vancouver Aquarium and I look forward to continuing to lead the organization as we emerge from the challenges of the pandemic and write the Aquarium’s next chapter. I have known the Herschend team for many years, they share our values, and I am extremely optimistic about the new and exciting opportunities that will be open to us with Herschend’s financial and creative support.”
The aquarium did not announce how many executives or employees would be retained by the new owner. It noted that Ocean Wise would "remain an independent charitable non-profit ocean conservation organization" and said that Herschend had agreed to donate one percent of the operation's gross yearly revenues to the former operator's "ambitious conservation program".
Ocean Wise president and CEO Lasse Gustavsson said in the release that the nonprofit would make good use of the annual funding contribution. “Ocean Wise is pleased to have gained Herschend as an ally in our conservation mission through their annual donation and our mutual desire for future collaboration,” Gustavsson said. “Going forward, Ocean Wise will continue to focus on solving the biggest challenges facing our oceans: climate change, pollution and overfishing.”
The release also noted that the Ocean Wise board of directors and the Ocean Wise Conservation Association voting members approved of the sale and that the park board agreed to transfer the aquarium's licence agreement to Herschend.
Ocean Wise said that it had ensured—with the advice of international accounting and consulting firm KPMG—that "any partner had the long-term financial ability to both sustain the Aquarium and its animals through the length of the pandemic and invest in a long-term vision which benefits the Aquarium and the community".
Referencing the two aquariums—Kentucky's Newport Aquarium and the Adventure Aquarium in New Jersey—currently operated by Herschend, Ocean Wise said as well that it made sure that "any potential operator had the experience and track record to manage an internationally renowned and accredited aquarium".
The 64-year-old facility in Stanley Park, which has hosted tens of millions of visitors since its opening in 1956, had undergone financial hardship since the COVID-19 pandemic caused it to shut its doors on March 17, 2020. Near the end of that month, the facility announcd that it had applied for $9.5 million in federal emergency funding to make up three months' worth of losses.
About a month after closing in March, Ocean Wise launched a public "Save the Vancouver Aquarium" campaign for donations to make up its foregone estimated monthly revenue of $3.3 million from admissions and gift-shop and cafe earnings. The effort brought in more than $620,000 from 8,200 individual donors, the operator reported at the time.
But it said that was only enough to run the facility for two and a half weeks and that without government assistance it would probably close in June 2020. Toward the end of that June, the federal Ministry of Economic Development announced that it was giving the aquarium $2 million in "emergency support", and the aquarium reopened.
Ocean Wise had previously stated that it was losing $1 million per month after slashing expenses and laying off about 60 percent of its 331 full- and part-time staff. (The aquarium and its Marine Mammal Rescue Centre [MMRC] also received about 100,000 hours of free labour annually from an estimated 1,000 volunteers.)
Ocean Wise also reported on its website that it benefited from "voluntary pay cuts among senior executives" but did not name the executives or say how much money was saved through the initiative.
About a week after the aquarium's reopening, the MMRC requested donations from the public to keep operating, then reported that it had received $157,000 from 1,500 donors within 48 hours. It had earlier said that a $195,000 emergency operating grant for the centre from Fisheries and Oceans Canada wasn't enough to stay open for long.
During that fundraising drive, it offered "adoptions" of rescued baby seals for $1,000 apiece, then announced that it had processed 46 such transactions and was offering another 34.
In early May, the aquarium announced that about $1 million had been raised internationally and that 100,000 pandemic facemasks had been sold in a fundraising venture with the Vancouver Whitecaps soccer franchise.
On August 31, 2020, Ocean Wise said it was closing the aquarium on September 8, saying that it was still losing $1 million per month and that it was "transforming our business model".
The aquarium had been the focus of protests by conservation and animal-welfare groups for decades, due to captivity concerns and the deaths of dozens of marine mammals, including orcas, belugas, dolphins, a false killer whale, and sea lions. (The LifeForce Foundation has estimated that 39 aquarium whales and dolphins have died in captivity at the facility since its opening.)
In January 2018, the aquarium's then-CEO, John Nightingale, announced that the facility would no longer keep whales and dolphins in captivity. After a Vancouver park board 2017 decision to prevent the aquarium from bringing in any new whales and dolphins, Nightingale had vowed to "fight to the end" to overturn the ban, saying that it would hinder the aquarium's ability to rescue whales and other marine mammals. (The vast majority of marine mammals taken in by the MMRC every year are baby seals.)
The aquarium, under Nightingale, commenced legal actions in 2014 and 2017 to thwart attempts by the park board to limit or halt importations, breeding, and display of cetaceans at the attraction in Stanley Park.