The Morro Bay Aquarium has been a source of enjoyment and curiosity for more than 50 years — and controversy for the past few decades. Owners Dean and Bertha Tyler, both elderly, with strong bonds in the seaside community, have maintained the aging aquarium, which became a rehabilitation center for marine life in 1984. Though many in Morro Bay have bestowed decades worth of gratitude and praise on the Tylers, critics contend that the focus should be on the alleged mistreatment of sea lions and seals that live in small pools located on the Embarcadero just a stone’s throw away from open waters. The 50-year lease is up for renewal in 2018, and the battle lines have been drawn between the believers of a beloved tourist attraction and critics who refer to the aquarium as “Seal Guantanamo.”
On June 25, the Morro Bay City Council voted 3-2 to initiate the Request for Proposal (RFP) process for the embattled aquarium. By voting for RFPs, the City has authorized staff to conduct a bidding process that solicits business proposals from potential tenants of the aquarium space, specifically aquariums and marine-friendly institutions. The RFPs will also allow the Tylers to re-submit their proposal, though the majority of the Council felt that their current “modest” proposal — which proposed a few “cosmetic upgrades” but no significant improvements to improve animal care — was inadequate. The Tylers’ proposal also included a fee hike for the aquarium, which would raise funds for additional, undisclosed improvements.
About 100 residents and interested parties from across the county and afar — with a mixture of views about the aquarium, how it’s run and what should happen next — went to the meeting to listen or speak about the issue, which has garnered statewide and national attention.
National animal welfare organizations such as the Humane Society and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have publicly condemned the aquarium for alleged neglect and unethical treatment of marine life. In a June 12 letter to the City, Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle joined Senior Scientist Dr. Naomi Rose in opposing the aquarium, stating that the animals were kept in “small, dingy enclosures that are inappropriate and do not educate or inspire visitors about the wonders of marine life.” Meanwhile, PETA’s Director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement, Delcianna Winders, wrote to the City Council on June 24 that the “barren, shallow display tanks deprive seals and sea lions of everything that they need to survive and thrive, including room to swim, depth to dive, and the companionship of their families.”
In early June, opponents of the aquarium launched a petition on Change.org to shut down the Morro Bay Aquarium. The petition was covered in local media and social media circles. The petition went viral, reaching a total of 6,010 signatures by June 25. People from around the globe signed the petition. The signatures were e-mailed to the Morro Bay City Council and staff, overwhelming the City’s e-mail system. Council and staff also fielded hundreds of phone calls and letters, which were mostly in opposition to the aquarium.
Bertha Tyler told the Bay News in their July 4–10, 2013 issue that the aquarium has received 13,000 petition signatures from aquarium visitors. The ROCK has visited the aquarium on several occasions and did not see a petition available for people to sign. When asked about the petition on July 4, an employee at the aquarium said she was unaware of its existence.
San Luis Obispo County Animal Services has documented hundreds of complaints about the aquarium. County Animal Services manager recommended that the aquarium receive accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums before applying for a new 10-year lease agreement. To date, the Tylers have not included accreditation as part of their proposal, which now appears to have become a prerequisite for submitting a proposal.
Harbor Director Eric Endersby stated that the RFP draft will likely be brought to the Council in August.
At the June 25 meeting, Mr. Tyler, 94, approached the lectern to give a presentation or — as critics in the audience were expecting — a defense of his aquarium. Instead, he talked about the various aquariums he visited around the country, which he said were “older” and had “more problems” than his aquarium. Mr. Tyler’s presentation was not substantively different than the one he gave at the May 2 Harbor Advisory Meeting, where he focused on other aquariums’ shortcomings and stated that the seals and sea lions at his aquarium were “happy.”
When he returned to the lectern on June 25, however, Mr. Tyler appeared more defiant. After taking a swipe at “unfavorable publicity… from people who don’t really know what they’re talking about,” Mr. Tyler accused Councilwoman Christine Johnson of skipping out of a tour of the facility, a claim which Johnson later denied. Johnson stated that she previously toured the aquarium when the Tylers were not present.
Mr. Tyler also claimed that the some council members met with Central Coast Aquarium officials without inviting him. The Central Coast Aquarium expressed interest in the aquarium lease site. A City official speaking on condition of anonymity since he has not been publicly authorized to discuss the issue revealed to The ROCK that the City reached out to the Tylers on “several occasions […] almost obsessively” to meet with the Central Coast Aquarium. Phone calls to the Tylers were not returned, the source said.
“We even reached out to [Tyler’s grandson, aquarium director John Alcorn], and he told us, ‘We’re not talking,'” the official told us. “[The Tylers] go up there and ask to renew their lease for ten years, but they really don’t want to make any structural improvements. We gave them suggestions. We tried to help them along, but they’re just not interested.”
Despite City staff’s attempts to resuscitate constructive talks with the Tylers, dissenting council members George Leage and Nancy Johnson lamented that the Tylers would be losing control in the RFP process. Leage stated that the RFP process voted on by the majority of the Council would “take them out of the driver’s seat.”
At the June 25 meeting, Alcorn declined comment to the The ROCK and referred to an attorney standing beside him. The attorney, J. Tavener Holland, has not issued a statement on behalf of the aquarium prior to press time.
The Tylers have long maintained that they’ve “done a lot of things to make the aquarium more suitable for the [United States Department of Agriculture],” but they’ve stopped short of addressing concerns and violations issued by the USDA, their Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) unit, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and County Animal Services, to name a few.
The New Times was the first media outlet to produce an aggregation of reports from those agencies. The reports outlined issues and violations that were found at the aquarium. In his May 17, 2012 article “The aquatic anachronism,” Colin Rigley portrayed an aquarium that was unabashedly out of touch with modern standards and regulations. Rigley provided inspection reports, other reports, warnings and activity logs, which unveiled several troubling aquarium conditions.
Sea lions housed at the aquarium swim around in shallow pools that currently meet APHIS standards, but until two years ago the pools were 19.7 inches deep, falling short of the three feet minimum. Though the aquarium is now in compliance with the minimal space requirements, the sea lions remain in close quarters; they’re swimming in pools that are more shallow than what is commonly shown at other known aquariums around the country.
“We’re the only place where you can buy seal food and feed the seals,” Mr. Tyler told the Harbor Advisory Board on May 2. “So when people come to Morro Bay Aquarium and they buy a bag of seal food, they go out there and they feed the seals and they clap with both hands […] Someone comes in and feels like a seal trainer when they come out.”
The seal food in question was criticized by APHIS, which stated that the aquarium “fail[ed] to ensure the food for marine mammals is wholesome, palatable, and free from contamination.” The ROCK spoke to APHIS officials, who continue to express concerns about the well-being of the seals and sea lions at the facility, explaining that the “food issue […] remains an issue for us.”
Without notifying the owners beforehand, The ROCK visited the aquarium to observe the marine life there and the conditions they were in. Sea lions posed for families that tossed them food. Children ran back and forth on the narrow, potentially slippery corridor, laughing gleefully as they watched the silent harbor seal and three sea lions — looking healthy and lucid — swim underwater in their pools. Maggie, a sea lion who just turned 26, rested on a raised platform and basked in the warmth of the sun entering the enclosure . The other sea lions kept busy rolling around in no apparent signs of distress. However, the pool appeared crowded and chaotic once all the creatures were swimming together.
Mayor Jamie Irons stated at the May 2 Harbor Advisory Board meeting and the June 25 City Council meeting that the Tylers were stewards of the community who are “good people” and in compliance with all state and city laws. Supporters of the aquarium, including Harbor Advisory Board chairman Jeff Eckles, praised the affordable, family-oriented aquarium as a “respected institution.”
The aquarium is a “respected and well loved establishment with a rich history in Morro Bay that has touched many people,” Eckles told The ROCK.
The opposition has ostracized the Tylers for allegedly pocketing thousands in “tax-free profit” and abusing mammals at the facility. There were also claims that the aquarium kept marine mammals in poor conditions as a for-profit business under the guise of a non-profit. Environmental activist Mandy Davis wrote in the May 29 issue of the New Times that the Tylers “benefited from the discomfort and abuse of other living beings in the name of maintaining a Morro Bay institution.” An exhaustive look into their records show that the vast majority of revenue generated by the aquarium is invested back into aquarium upkeep expenses. Virtually no income is generated at the aquarium. Despite several warnings and non-compliance citations, there is no evidence that the Tylers personally abused or “benefited from the discomfort and abuse” of the marine life at their aquarium.
The opposition has heavily referred to user reviews on Yelp as source material for their documentation, including a video uploaded to YouTube on June 8. In addition to calling the aquarium “Seal Guantanamo,” emotionally charged reviewers compared the aquarium to concentration camps (an “aquatic Auchwitz” ), Hell on Earth, Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison and African-American slavery.
“These people need to be lined up and shot!” wrote one Yelp reviewer.
Despite the vote to issue RFPs, which creates a level playing field for those who wish to participate, including the Tylers, the Morro Bay Aquarium continues to be a source of controversy in a community known for its progressive aquatic outreach, education and tourism. But there is one thing that all factions involved in this debate can agree on: the aquarium needs an upgrade. The question now is, “What kind of upgrade will Morro Bay Aquarium supporters and opponents be seeing?” The possible answer to that question will not likely appear until the end of 2013 when proposals are received and reviewed by the City Council and public.