Already the biggest draw in southwestern Connecticut with more than 500,000 visitors a year, Maritime Aquarium can likely expect even more heading into November with the arrival of the SoNo Collection mall a short distance away in South Norwalk.
And a few towns away, another mall is to host a different aquarium — though it’s one that a handful of animal rights groups nationally would like to pull the plug on.
Trumbull municipal officials say SeaQuest plans to open a 17,000-square-foot visitors aquarium in June at Westfield Trumbull just off the Merritt Parkway, situated on the lower level between JCPenney and Target. Exhibits will include tanks for sharks and stingrays among more than 300 species, with guests at other SeaQuest facilities able to purchase snorkeling sessions lasting a half-hour among rays and fish.
As initial teaser prices elsewhere in the country, SeaQuest is charging $10 for a daily pass, $30 for an annual “passport” and $70 for a family pass for the year.
Westfield Trumbull would host SeaQuest’s first location in the Northeast, with the company having other locations in Colorado, Nevada, Texas and Utah.
It would represent Connecticut’s third major indoor sea-life attraction after Maritime Aquarium and Mystic Aquarium, though on a far smaller scale and operated as a for-profit business rather than with the nonprofit conservation and education values at the core of the missions of the Norwalk and Mystic aquariums. As the case with Maritime Aquarium, SeaQuest relies in part on volunteers to staff exhibits.
With less than a month until the for-profit aquarium opens in Westfield Trumbull Mall, industry peers remain worried about how it will treat its exhibits.
“We are concerned when we read that SeaQuests’ operations in other locations not only have fallen short of (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) standards, they have triggered criminal charges and regulatory fines in response to their care of animals and their attempted procuring of species from the marine environment,” reads a statement from the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, regarding the incoming 17,000 square-foot SeaQuest Interactive Aquarium.
SeaQuest has had its share of negative publicity through the years. The company has operations in Colorado, Nevada, Texas and Utah, with plans to open in other states, including Connecticut. Animal rights groups have accused the company of animal cruelty at several of its six locations.
SeaQuest founder Vince Covino has been the target of criticism from animal welfare advocates over the company’s stewardship of aquariums in San Antonio and Portland, Ore. His brother Ammon Covino was convicted on a charge of illegally shipping sharks and rays. The brothers have defended their record.
Last summer, the state of Colorado issued a cease-and-desist order against a SeaQuest Interactive Aquarium in Littleton after state officials determined the site failed to pass numerous Pet Animal Care and Facilities Act inspections of its bird exhibit.
An investigation was also opened in Colorado after reports of animals biting patrons and staff. National sources reported that at least 30 injuries were reported at the aquarium from June 2018 through January of this year.
SeaQuest has disputed the allegations.
“Recent news stories have brought to light inaccurate and misleading information about SeaQuest, and how we care for the animals at our facilities,” a SeaQuest spokesman wrote in an email to Hearst Connecticut Media. “The SeaQuest family is committed to delivering a safe, educational and fun interactive experience at each of our facilities for the animals, our guests and team members.”
Despite ongoing coverage of alleged abuse, mall and town officials have remained tight-lipped about the accusations against the company, not responding to repeated emails and phone calls from Hearst Connecticut Media asking for comment.
SeaQuest told Hearst that it has reassured officials that the Trumbull location would be sensitive to the welfare of its exhibits.
“SeaQuest will never make a decision that will hurt an animal or put money before the health of an animal,” read a statement from the company to the Town of Trumbull.
In that same statement, the company said that its operations met and exceeded AZA requirements. In the past, SeaQuest has opted out of pursuing AZA accreditation, according to national sources.
“To say that their exhibits meet AZA standards for aquariums in particular — our standards are the same as what USDA or NOAA would require,” said Rob Vernon, spokesperson for the AZA. “They are performance-based standards, not engineering-based standards.”
Vernon told Hearst Connecticut Media that none of SeaQuest’s locations have applied for or received the accreditation.
“There is certainly a big distinction between an accredited zoo and aquarium and a non-accredited facility,” said Barrett Christie, Director of Animal Husbandry for the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, which has expressed concerns over the incoming SeaQuest venue.
Lacking governing bodies
The Trumbull location touts exhibits featuring sharks and stingrays among more than 300 species. Guests at other SeaQuest facilities are able to purchase snorkeling sessions among rays and fish lasting a half-hour.
Depending on the animals that SeaQuest features in the Trumbull location, the company would need to have a license to display certain species to the public, experts said.
In most states, there aren’t any governing bodies that can enforce animal safety and welfare of fish and reptiles — Connecticut included.
“It’s a very difficult case to prove,” Bartlett said. “There aren’t rigorous standards set for fish the way they way there are for mammals.”
In many cases, Bartlett said, organizations seek accreditation from third-party organizations to show they are operating at a high standard. The AZA, among others, offers a credential to facilities that meet extensive regulations, though it’s not mandatory to apply for it.
The Norwalk and Mystic aquariums or Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport are AZA accredited.