Exploris: Seal sanctuary is saved, but fate of aquarium unclear
The future of Northern Ireland's only seal sanctuary has been guaranteed, despite continuing uncertainty over the Exploris aquarium.
Exploris in Portaferry was given two months in September to find funding or it will be closed and sold off.
Ards Borough Council has been managing it but says it can no longer afford what they have said is a regional facility.
Exploris is seeking regional funding from government but no Stormont ministers have yet committed to rescuing it.
Environment Minister Mark H Durkan has now said that whatever happens to Exploris, his department will fund the seal sanctuary, currently part of the aquarium, although he will not guarantee it will be in Portaferry.
Sick or injured seals from across Ireland are currently brought to Exploris, where they are nursed back to health before being released back in to the wild.
In the past two weeks, it rescued five baby seals stranded on beaches at Portrush, Millisle, Larne, Orlock and Portaferry. The only other seal sanctuary in Ireland is located in Cork. In a statement to the Belfast Telegraph yesterday, Mr Durkan said: "My department has given a commitment to fund the sanctuary whether that be in Exploris or elsewhere."
He also revealed in response to an oral question posed by Strangford Alliance MLA Kieran McCarthy that his officials have written to Ards Borough Council "setting out a proposal for providing assistance to Exploris".
"The essence of the proposal is that a one-off grant support may be available to help upgrade the facilities to attract more visitors and income, thus reducing the subsidy provided by the council," he said.
This proposal is expected to be discussed by the council on November 20, with any recommendation voted on the next week.
Exploris has until November 25 to find funding to allow it to continue.
Ards Borough Council has run the facility since 1987.
Private firm, Livingstone Leisure, submitted a successful bid to take over the aquarium. However, the deal fell through earlier this year.
Now the aquarium is seeking government funding to stay open or it will close.