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Vancouver Aquarium under new ownership, outlines future as rescue facility and tourist attraction

New owners are also tied to Harlem Globetrotters, Dollywood, and two other aquariums in the U.S.
The Vancouver Aquarium in Vancouver, B.C. Photo: Luke McAdam, Ocean Wise

The Vancouver Aquarium has new owners.

The popular tourist attraction and animal rescue facility announced Thursday (April 15) they signed an agreement Wednesday to transfer its ownership from Ocean Wise Conservation Association to Herschend Enterprises.

"The agreement ensures that Vancouver will continue to have a world-class aquarium with the financial strength to continue building on its 64-years of success as an animal care and animal rescue facility, a cherished educational venue, and one of BC’s top tourist and event destinations," reads a press release.

"The transaction is the result of a proactive process undertaken by the Board of Directors and management of Ocean Wise to safeguard the future of the Vancouver Aquarium and its animals, and avoid the worst case scenario of permanent closure," notes the Vancouver Aquarium.

Last August, the Aquarium announced they were temporarily suspending all operations after September 8, 2020, due to the facility's inability to draw revenue under COVID-19 restrictions. Ocean Wise's prediction: The Vancouver Aquarium would "run out of cash to operate by spring 2021, even after significantly reducing the workforce, government subsidies, and generous financial support from donors, government (federal and provincial) and community partners."

Prior to its fall closure, the storied - and polarizing - venue had suggested they may not be able to remain open at all due the financial losses sustained as a result of the pandemic. 

The Aquarium says Herschend has acquired 100% ownership of the Vancouver Aquarium which will continue to be led by Chief Operating Officer, Clint Wright, who has been with the Vancouver Aquarium for more than 30 years.

Ocean Wise will remain an independent charitable non-profit ocean conservation organization led by renowned conservationist Lasse Gustavsson, adds the venue in its announcement. 

What is Herschend Enterprises?

Herschend, which launched in 1960, says it is "considered the nation’s largest family-owned themed attractions corporation." They "take great pride in owning and partnering in leading theme parks including Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri, and Dollywood in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains of which Dolly Parton is our partner," according to the Herschend site. Under its "Herschend Live" banner it operates the Harlem Globetrotters. 

The Vancouver Aquarium adds Herschend is "the owner of two aquariums accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (“AZA”). AZA accreditation represents the highest standard in animal care and welfare while providing a fun, safe, and educational family experience. The focus of Herschend’s aquariums is to inspire families to learn more, care more, and do more for animals and their environments."

As part of the agreement, Herschend will donate 1% of annual gross revenues from the Vancouver Aquarium to Ocean Wise to support the organization’s ambitious conservation program.

“Ocean Wise is pleased to have gained Herschend as an ally in our conservation mission through their annual donation and our mutual desire for future collaboration,” said Gustavsson in a media release “Going forward, Ocean Wise will continue to focus on solving the biggest challenges facing our oceans: climate change, pollution and overfishing.”Ocean Wise’s conservation initiatives – including Ocean Wise Seafood, Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, Ocean Bridge and many others – will continue to grow and have impact across Canada and globally.

When will the Vancouver Aquarium re-open?

While the plan is to re-open the Vancouver Aquarium, Herschend says management plans to "undertake a comprehensive consultation with the Aquarium’s guests, partners, stakeholders and staff to solicit input on enhancements they would like to see at the facility," noting that the input it receives "will be critical in a developing a long-term plan for post-pandemic success and growth."

Additionally, Herschend indicates it intends to re-hire many of the Aquarium's former employees as it endeavours to employ "Canadian leadership and local staff."

Also outlined by the Aquarium and its new owners, plans are to focus on the following:

  • Meaningful commitments to the community – including a continued connection with schools, community groups and families, and remaining an important employer and venue in Vancouver’s tourism infrastructure.
  • Supporting ocean conservation – the Aquarium’s acclaimed Marine Mammal Rescue program will continue to operate as it does today. As well, Herschend will donate 1% of gross revenues from the Vancouver Aquarium to Ocean Wise to support research and conservation initiatives. 

In seeking a buyer, Ocean Wise says the process "was guided by fundamental principles aligned to the Aquarium’s mission, and the role it plays with its many stakeholders in the local and global communities." Ocean Wise outlines those as follows: 

Ensuring that any partner had the long-term financial ability to both sustain the Aquarium and its animals through the length of the pandemic and invest in a long-term vision which benefits the Aquarium and the community.
Ensuring that any potential operator had the experience and track record to manage an internationally renowned and accredited aquarium.
Ensuring that any potential operator understands and is committed to the values of Vancouver, BC, and Canada.
Protecting the brand and mission of both the Vancouver Aquarium and Ocean Wise, and positioning both for future success.

Ocean Wise adds they approached over 70 parties in British Columbia and around the world, including "leading aquarium and zoo operators, non-profit societies with similar values and missions, and high net-worth individuals" to propose a potential purpose.

The agreement with Herschend was approved by the Ocean Wise Board of Directors and unanimously approved by the Ocean Wise Conservation Association Voting Members. Ocean Wise also obtained the consent of the Vancouver Park Board to transfer the Vancouver Aquarium License Agreement to Herschend.