The city’s Harbor Advisory Board held a hearing Thursday to take public comment on whether the lease for the controversial facility on the Embarcadero should be renewed. About 20 people spoke, with most of them in favor of allowing the aquarium to continue to operate.
Most called the aquarium a beloved institution and praised the owners for decades of hard work educating the public about marine life. However, others criticized the facility as antiquated and too small to house the seals, which are its main attraction.
Members of the advisory board said they would like to see the aquarium remain but said that improvements are probably warranted to modernize it. They also said it is important for the city to keep its marine-related tourist facilities.
Many of the supporters said they grew up going to the aquarium and have since taken their children and grandchildren there to see marine mammals up close. Patty James of Los Osos said the aquarium is needed for people who cannot afford to go to the larger, more expensive aquariums such as the one in Monterey.
Critics said the tanks that house the seals are too small and are enclosed in cages, which results in many of the seals dying prematurely. In recent weeks, critics have stood outside the aquarium handing out leaflets decrying the conditions inside.
The facility is owned by Dean and Bertha Tyler, who have a 50-year lease with the city that expires in 2018. Dean Tyler said he has made improvements over the years to better accommodate the seals, such as adding resting platforms and deepening the tanks.
He said about 200,000 people a year visit the aquarium and it is the only facility where visitors can feed the seals, which then clap and perform other tricks.
“A person who comes in feels like he is a seal trainer when he comes out,” he said.
Due to the complexity of deciding whether the lease should be renewed and what, if any, changes might be required there, the city is starting the review process five years in advance, said Eric Endersby, harbor director.
Endersby described the business as “an important and historical lease” for the city and noted that it has functioned as a marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation facility as well as a tourist attraction for nearly 50 years.
“While its current configuration may be argued in terms of appropriateness in this day and age, it cannot be denied that the Tylers have dedicated their lives to the community and to operating a popular and important center of marine education, display and animal rehabilitation over the years,” Endersby said.
In 2011, city staff contacted the Tylers to find out their plans for the lease but did not receive a response. As a result, the city decided to put out a request for proposals but did not do so because of staff time constraints.
Since then, the Tylers have made what Endersby called a modest proposal. The City Council is tentatively scheduled to hold a hearing on the aquarium June 25.