Exploris: axe-threat aquarium saved by Stormont
Stormont has stepped in to save Northern Ireland's only public aquarium from closure.
Exploris Aquarium in Portaferry has been under threat since last September when current owner Ards Borough Council said it could no longer afford to keep it afloat.
This sparked a furious response including a global online Save Exploris campaign and protests outside council offices.
Ards councillors then agreed to ask Stormont for regional funding, arguing that as our only aquarium, it was a regional centre.
Yesterday Environment Minister Mark H Durkan ended the uncertainty when he announced Stormont had agreed to provide almost £1m of funding.
He was speaking following a meeting of the Executive about the quarterly spending round in which unspent funds are redistributed, and revealed that the £900,000 capital funding requested by Ards Borough Council has been granted.
This money will be used to update and renovate the aquarium, which features around 3,000 marine creatures.
However, the council will remain in charge of the running of the centre.
An equality impact assessment consultation in relation to closing Exploris had already commenced, however this is now expected to be rescinded at a special council meeting next Thursday evening.
Mr Durkan said the funding was excellent news for supporters of Exploris and the people of Portaferry.
"They have fought a valiant campaign, highlighting not just the regional importance of Exploris, but have also argued that it is vital to the social and economic well-being of the town," he said.
Ards mayor Philip Smith welcomed the cash but said the council was keen to find out when it would be made available and if there were time restrictions around spending it.
"Now the challenge is to take that forward, revamp Exploris and make it a success," he said.
Save Exploris campaign spokesperson Cathie McKimm said they were "over the Moon" about the news.
"I'm so glad they've listened to the people. They really have done the right thing."
Exploris Aquarium in Portaferry has been open for more than 25 years. The visitor facility includes a sanctuary for sick or orphaned seals and employs 18 staff. It also plays a role in research, with links to the Queen's University marine laboratory. The centre opened in 1987 as the Northern Ireland Aquarium to showcase the diverse local marine life. It was reopened as Exploris in 1994 by Prince Charles.