Hopes for last-gasp Exploris reprieve look dead in the water: Stormont ministers unwilling to bail out Northern Ireland's only aquarium
It is not looking likely that Northern Ireland's only aquarium, Exploris, will be bailed out by Stormont.
Environment Minister Mark H Durkan asked at a meeting of the Executive yesterday if his colleagues would be willing in principle to provide funding for Exploris.
The Belfast Telegraph understands his request was met with hostility and an argument was made that funding the aquarium would lead to a precedent being set.
Exploris, located in Portaferry on the shores of Strangford Lough, was allowed a two-month stay of execution at a meeting of Ards Borough Council last week. Councillors argue that it cannot continue to fund the centre, which costs around £600,000 to run each year.
If no funding can be found to save Exploris, it will be closed when the two-month reprieve comes to an end in November.
Negotiations to sell Exploris to private company, Livingstone Leisure, fell through last month. The DUP team on the council and some UUP councillors backed its closure, while other UUP councillors, along with Alliance and the SDLP, wanted it to remain open.
SDLP councillor Joe Boyle, who owns a chip shop in Portaferry, said closing the centre will spell the end of the town which he said relies on the visitors attracted by Exploris.
A report by Ards Borough Council found the aquarium attracted around 100,000 visitors a year and contributes around £3m to the local economy.
Ulster Unionist councillor Philip Smith said the visitor numbers have fallen significantly in the past two years.
Yesterday at the Executive meeting, Tourism Minister Arlene Foster is understood to have said she has no money for the centre, while another minister said Exploris is in the wrong place.
The meeting did not take any kind of vote on the matter.
A spokesman for the Department of the Environment released a statement to the Belfast Telegraph confirming Mr Durkan had raised Exploris at the meeting.
"Minister Durkan updated his Executive colleagues on Exploris," the spokesman said.
"The Executive asked him to provide more information, which will now be done."
There is sizeable support in the community for retaining Exploris with over 7,000 people signing online petitions to keep it open and over 27,000 people adding their support on a Facebook page.
The Save Exploris group is hoping to meet with Mrs Foster. Spokeswoman Cathie McKimm said central and local Government should be "rushing to capitalise on the new opportunities for the facilities, not rushing to close it down.
"The fundamental structure of a world class aquarium is in place, but is suffering from lack of vision and investment," she said.
Exploris has two months to find alternative funding or its doors will be closed by current owners Ards Borough Council.
It is Northern Ireland's only aquarium and also houses a sanctuary for sick or injured seals as well as having links with the Queen's University Marine Science lab located nearby in Portaferry.
The council voted to close and dispose of the aquarium if new funding could not be found.
It costs £550,000 a year to run and attracts around 100,000 visitors each year.
"Exploris is the best possible place to showcase the exceptionally diverse marine life of Strangford Lough, which has just become Northern Ireland's first Marine Conservation Zone and is one of the most important marine nature sites in Europe.
"Unlike most aquaria, Exploris draws water directly from the lough, meaning the displays are as close as possible to the natural environment.
"The infrastructure is already in place, and with some investment the aquarium and its seal sanctuary are the perfect place for everyone to engage with the lough and learn why it is so important."
- Dr Julia Sigwart of the Queen's University Marine Laboratory