The co-owner of an Oregon aquarium that's being investigated by the Humane Society for a conspicuous string of marine animal deaths is claiming that documents referring to those deaths were fabricated by a disgruntled former employee. More than 200 animals are reported to have died at the Portland Aquarium since it opened nine months ago, but co-owner Vince Covino says that a death log circulated to news publications was fabricated and denied that deaths at the facility have been higher in number than at comparable aquariums.
The Milwaukie aquarium housed more than 2,000 species of animals when it opened in December 2012, KOIN reported. But according to a death log that was leaked to The Oregonian, more than 200 animals including bamboo sharks, sea horses, garden eels, sea stars, crabs and fish have died in the months since then as a result of poor living conditions.
The log, which chronicles deaths between February and May, lists the suspected reasons for the deaths, including infection, starvation, overfeeding, attacks from other animals, loss of overnight power at the facility and getting caught in drains. Mike Corcoran, an exotic animals veterinarian who worked at the aquarium until February, said the facility frequently neglected to care for its animals in an adequate or timely fashion out of budgetary concerns.
Corcoran added that while he worked there, there were several instances in which the aquarium waited too long to perform emergency treatments or to quarantine new animals. "I feel those animals were subject to undue pain and suffering to save money," he said.
Another former employee, Carolyn Emch-Wei, claimed she had left the aquarium due to inadequate care given to animals.
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“I left because there was a trend of mistreatment of the animals in ways that could be prevented,” Emch-Wei, a marine biologist who previously worked at the Oregon Coast Aquarium before joining the Portland Aquarium, told the publication. “I was feeling worse and worse about it.”
"There is loss at aquariums; you can't deny that," she said. “But there were so many deaths that were straight up preventable."
Lisa Van Etten, another marine biologist who left the aquarium in June, said that she also believed many of the animal deaths were due to inadequate time in quarantine. Van Etten said she witnessed on more than one occasion an entire group of animals, which shared a tank, die shortly after the introduction of new arrivals, a phenomenon she claimed resulted from failure to isolate new animals for an appropriate period of time.
In a phone call to KOIN, Covino described the death log as “fictitious” and said there was no evidence that mortality rates at his aquarium were higher than elsewhere. He also said that the reports were “defamatory to our highly qualified team of marine biologists, who do an excellent job of caring for our animals.”
"And in many cases, we believe we have done better," Covino wrote in an e-mail to The Oregonian. "We spare no expense in ensuring our animals have the best health care possible."
Covino and his brother Ammon, who hail from Idaho where they co-founded the Boise Aquarium, are currently planning to open another facility in Texas. According to Nate Hall, head marine biologist at Boise Aquarium, Ammon Covino stepped down as the aquarium's director more than two months ago and is no longer actively involved in the facility. Vince Covino has similarly lessened his participation. "Vince is only involved in the Gift Shop," Hall said.
Ammon Covino, who also co-owns the Portland Aquarium, was arrested in February on charges of illegally harvesting marine animals. His nephew, Peter C. Covino, 20, was also convicted in July in the same case, for allegedly contacting marine animal wholesalers and asking them to destroy evidence that might link his uncle to them. According to the Associated Press, Peter Covino faces a prison sentence of up to 20 years.