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Fears for future of Exploris after £12m Belfast aquarium approved

Council voices concern over 'potential negative impact' on Portaferry attraction

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Refurbished: Exploris in Portaferry which faced closure before a rescue package was backed by the NI Executive

Refurbished: Exploris in Portaferry which faced closure before a rescue package was backed by the NI Executive

Refurbished: Exploris in Portaferry which faced closure before a rescue package was backed by the NI Executive

A major threat has been posed to the survival of Exploris aquarium in Portaferry following the approval of a new £12m facility for Belfast, a former MLA has warned.

The new aquarium, which could create more than 50 full-time jobs for Belfast and is operated by company ReefLive, would be the biggest facility of its kind on the island.

It has been given planning approval for its Titanic Quarter site and is expected to attract as many as 300,000 visitors each year. It is the latest blow to Co Down-based Exploris, which has faced closure threats over the years.

Up until now Northern Ireland's only aquarium, Exploris was threatened with permanent closure in 2012 before a rescue package was backed by the Northern Ireland Executive and owners Ards and North Down Borough Council.

It reopened in 2016 after a £1.5m refurbishment under a new operator, the company responsible for Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast.

A spokesperson for Ards and North Down said the council was "understandably disappointed" with the planning application but respected the decision.

It has now sent a letter to Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon asking her to "call-in" the planning application and said it was concerned over traffic congestion at Titanic Quarter and "any potential negative impact" a new aquarium could have on Exploris.

Former Alliance MLA Kieran McCarthy, who was instrumental in fighting to save the aquarium on the shore of Strangford Lough, said "it would be shameful" if a new facility led to the closure of Exploris after previous campaigns to keep it open.

"I do feel very strongly that it will have an impact on Exploris in Portaferry when this new one becomes operational," he said.

"People living in the city probably want one and that's okay but you have got to, in my opinion, look at the overall picture of the economy of Northern Ireland and if that's going to be detrimental to Portaferry, which hasn't got much going for it other than tourism.

"I hope that those in positions of power, both in Stormont and in council, will realise the threat that Exploris will be under when this new one comes about."

However, the DUP leader in Ards and North Down has urged the council to dispense with negativity over the threat to Exploris and instead focus on marketing the special and unique tourist facilities offered by the Ards Peninsula.

Councillor Robert Adair said there was plenty on offer for tourists in the Ards and North Down area and a positive promotion was now necessary.

"We should not be worried about what Belfast is doing," he said. "What we need to do now is focus on Exploris and the unique experience it has to offer for the whole family.

"There's too much negativity about the prospect of a new aquarium coming to Belfast, but now is the time to really start promoting the Peninsula and all it has to offer."

It is thought the new aquarium in Belfast could create up to 100 construction jobs, followed by 51 full-time posts created once in operation. Plans for the building span across two storeys and more than 30,000 sq ft. They would include a cafe, coral reef ocean tank, with the main exhibition space across five zones on the first floor - themed as Ireland, Deep Ocean, Azores, Pacific and Arctic.

Owners expect that visitors would spend between one and a half and two hours on-site, with tours offered such as dive experiences, behind-the-scenes tours and virtual reality ice dives.

Around 13 representations were received in relation to the planning application, including 10 letters of objection.

Concerns included the impact to traffic and travel, the impact on heritage for both listed buildings and monuments, flooding and the potential negative impact on the Portaferry aquarium in Co Down.

Belfast Telegraph