Problems mount at Covino-owned aquariums

Inside the Portland Aquarium, August 2013 (KOIN 6 News file)
Inside the Portland Aquarium in August 2013. (KOIN 6 News file)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Searches by federal agents, damning court documents, permit problems, Facebook pages urging a boycott, criminal charges and building violations are among the issues facing the owners of the Portland Aquarium.

And those problems are just what they’re dealing with in other states.

An anti-Idaho Aquarium Facebook page. The aquarium is owned by Vince and Ammon Covino, who also own the Portland Aquarium, Aug. 26, 2013 (KOIN 6 News)

An anti-Idaho Aquarium Facebook page. The aquarium is owned by Vince and Ammon Covino, who also own the Portland Aquarium, Aug. 26, 2013. (KOIN 6 News)

Brothers Vince and Ammon Covino deny the charges, and the staff at the Portland Aquarium deny any mistreatment of the animals.

But former employees and critics say there is a lot going on behind-the-scenes.

Lisa Van Etten is a marine biologist and former employee at the Portland Aquarium, Aug. 26, 2013 (KOIN 6 News)

Lisa Van Etten is a marine biologist and former employee at the Portland Aquarium, Aug. 26, 2013. (KOIN 6 News)

“It seemed there was just an active unwillingness to make sure the animals were taken care of,” former Portland Aquarium employee Lisa Van Etten told KOIN 6 News. Van Etten is also a marine biologist. “It seemed like the bottom line for the business was to make as much money as possible rather than spending that money and investing that money to make sure the facility was adequate enough to care for the animals.”

The Oregon Humane Society is investigating the aquarium after a former employee released a “death log” documenting more than 200 animal deaths in a three-month period earlier this year. Complex investigations can, at times, take as along as six months, the Humane Society said.

Whistleblowers point to starvation, infection and equipment failure.

But co-owner Vinco Covino told KOIN’s sister station in Austin, Texas, KXAN, “No fish died of starvation.”

Portland Aquarium employee Lary Smith said, “[The fish] would probably die from being overfed, I mean we feed them well.”

Smith also said the facility does keep a death log, “but the death log encompasses every little snail and little creature we have here.” Their argument is that when animals like feeder fish are included, the numbers of deaths are taken out of context.

They also willingly showed KOIN 6 News the tanks they use to quarantine the animals. Whistleblowers said the quarantining has not been properly handled which led to the deaths.

While the employees in Portland insist the animals are being well taken care of, there is no denying the owners are dealing with other problems in other cities.

Vince Covino told KXAN an aquarium will open this winter — “We are on track. Everything is going just as planned,” he said — but there is an open investigation with the Austin City Code Compliance Department.

The city of Austin said the Austin Aquarium hasn’t obtained a building permit and a complaint shows they’ve been cited for not having a certificate of occupancy and for installing water tanks without an approved site plan.

“It seems to be the way they operate,” former employee Van Etten said.

KOIN 6 News learned the US Attorney’s Office in Florida confirmed co-owner Ammon Covino agreed last week to plead guilty to illegally harvesting marine animals for their aquarium in Idaho.

Ammon Covino in an undated photo. He and his brother, Vince Covino, own the Portland Aquarium. (KOIN 6 News, file)

Ammon Covino in an undated photo. He and his brother, Vince Covino, own the Portland Aquarium. (KOIN 6 News, file)

Court documents said he also tried to illegally buy lemon sharks for the aquarium in Portland.

Neither the Idaho Aquarium nor the Portland Aquarium are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Zoos and aquariums across the country have the AZA accreditation, including the Seattle Aquarium, Oregon Coast Aquarium and Oregon Zoo.

Receiving an AZA accreditation involves a multiple day on-site inspection by AZA experts looking at animal management and care.

The Covinos, KOIN 6 News learned, have never applied for the AZA accreditation.

“It would be a really challenging certification for them to get with the way they are setting up their businesses now,” Van Etten said.

Late last week, Bradshaw Advertising released the following statement on behalf of the aquarium:

“We are very concerned about the recent allegations against the Portland Aquarium. The health of our marine animals is taken seriously at our facility. Right now we are taking time to review the situation and we will have no further comments to the press until our review is complete.”

In Austin, Mindy Briggs is boycotting the Austin Aquarium.

“They’re trying to brush it under the rug,” she told KXAN. “It won’t be easily brushed under the rug.”

But Lary Smith insists the animals at the Portland Aquarium are safe and healthy.

“I take my job very seriously,” he said. “We really care about this place.”

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