Exploris aquarium could be thrown a lifeline despite ministers ruling out funding
Two Stormont departments have ruled themselves out of funding under-threat aquarium Exploris.
However, there may be a possibility of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Invest NI being able to help, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
Supporters of Exploris have now just over a month to find enough cash to keep it open.
The council voted unanimously on September 25 to allow two months to find funding for Exploris before moving to "close and dispose" of the facility.
It has approached a number of Stormont departments to inquire about regional funding, arguing that as Northern Ireland's only aquarium, Exploris is a regional facility. But yesterday Education Minister John O'Dowd said in response to an Assembly Question that he will not fund it.
In reply to the question asked by North Down DUP MLA Peter Weir, Mr O'Dowd said it would "not be appropriate" for his department to fund it.
"The Department of Education does not provide funding for the upkeep of Exploris, nor would it be appropriate to do so," he said.
However, while the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment also ruled itself out, minister Arlene Foster said the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) and Invest Northern Ireland may help.
"NITB has provided a total of £1,841,777 of financial support to Exploris for capital, marketing and other schemes," she said in response to Mr Weir. "While not in a position to provide revenue funding for Exploris, NITB recognises the importance of the Aquarium as a major tourist attraction in the Strangford Lough area and would encourage Ards Borough Council to try to find a suitable solution to keep this facility operational.
"NITB and Invest Northern Ireland are currently exploring options for other support, if any exists, that they may be in a position to offer Ards Borough Council in support of Exploris."
Exploris has received a sizeable amount of support online, including almost 28,000 followers to a Save Exploris page on Facebook.
However, the Belfast Telegraph revealed last month that when Environment Minister Mark H Durkan brought it to a meeting of the Executive, it was given a hostile reception.
As well as a display of fish, Exploris is home to a seal sanctuary. It rescues sick and injured seals from across Ireland and links with Queen's University Belfast's marine lab in Portaferry.
Back in 1987, the then Northern Ireland Aquarium opened in Portaferry to help generate business with Ards councillor and Portaferry businessman Joe Boyle now saying closure will be "the end of Portaferry".
As well as its display of fish, Exploris houses Ireland's only seal sanctuary, rescuing sick and injured seals. Environment Minister Mark H Durkan is concerned about what will happen if it's closed: "I regard the seal pup sanctuary as an integral part of Exploris and consequently any deliberations on the future of Exploris must take account of this facility," he said.