Is the Austin Aquarium Fishy?
Vince Covino defends the family business
To hear Vince Covino tell it, he, his family, and importantly, their businesses – aquariums in two western cities, and a third slated to open in Austin before the end of the year – have been maligned by disgruntled employees and made the subject of repeatedly inaccurate press reports. "Let's just say, people love bad news," Covino said last month.
Indeed, Covino and his brother Ammon – the brothers behind the creation of the Boise, Idaho, and Portland, Ore., aquaria and who, with their father Peter, intend to open the Austin Aquarium in Northwest Austin (US 183 and Anderson Mill Road) – have faced their share of bad press. But whether they're victims, or have earned that bad press, remains an open question.
The Covino brothers' operations first made headlines here when news from Oregon broke that a former employee had leaked to the Oregonian a so-called marine animal "death log" detailing the deaths of more than 200 aquatic species in a roughly three-month period. Accompanying that report were comments from a former vet for the Portland operation who'd left the Covinos' employ, he told the daily, over concerns about animal welfare. "I felt those animals were subject to undue pain and suffering to save money," veterinarian Mike Corcoran told the daily.
That report and Corcoran's comments were lies, says Vince Covino, who's been traveling between Boise and Austin to help build and ready the new aquarium for opening. Covino notes that the Portland death log is mostly accurate – indeed, animal husbandry experts told the Chronicle this summer that during the start-up phase of any new aquarium mortality rates are often higher (the Portland Aquarium opened roughly two months before the start of the death log in question) – but that there are additional entries to the log that are pure fabrication: One entry purports that a nautilus died from "depression," another notes that an abalone died from "congestive heart failure." "Do you think that we have cardiologists and fish psychologists on staff?" Covino asked. "That [we perform] the anatomical prefrontal cortex examination of the dead fish? It's totally asinine. It ought to be so self-evident to anyone with common sense that this is such bull."
What's really afoot at the Portland Aquarium, he says, is that two disgruntled employees – including Corcoran – conspired to stab the brothers and their operation in the back after one was fired for poor performance, and after Corcoran asked for additional hours and a huge raise. Covino said Corcoran's performance at the Aquarium was deficient – he pointed to a time when the vet used a rigid tube to force feed a shark, tearing up its belly and causing its death – and that when Covino refused to increase his hours or pay, he "was pissed off," he said. "But with most ... disgruntled employees [who] try to screw you, it doesn't go on the front page of the newspaper, because it's not a fun, exciting headline like '200 Animals Dead.'" (Covino told us that the Chronicle's previous report on the Aquarium – "Austin Aquarium Gets the Fisheye," Aug. 26 – was also full of "inaccuracies," but he has yet to say exactly what he considers incorrect, so that we can review the piece and, if needed, issue a correction.)
Corcoran did not return phone calls requesting comment for this story.
News of the death log and of other allegations about deficient practices at the Oregon facility prompted an investigation by the Oregon Humane Society that is reportedly ongoing. Moreover, according to reports in the Idaho press, the two-year-old aquarium there is now under investigation by the Idaho Humane Society, based on similar complaints, including one from a former employee who was told to freeze an injured lizard in order to kill it; the employee reportedly refused. The same employee also reported that the death by water toxicity of a giant pacific octopus was "by far the worst experience I ever had with an animal." A marine biologist for the Idaho Aquarium told the Associated Press that he performed a necropsy on the octopus and found that the water was normal.
There have been other problems. In 2011, the co-founder and former director of the Idaho facility pled guilty to the illegal smuggling of protected coral, and on Sept. 24, Ammon Covino (listed in state records as a managing member of the Austin Aquarium and in court records as president of the Idaho Aquarium) pled guilty in federal court to conspiring to illegally procure from Florida for showing in the Idaho facility spotted eagle rays and lemon sharks worth at least several thousand dollars. According to federal court records, Ammon sought to procure the animals from someone in the Florida Keys who ultimately reported his activity to the feds; that person told Ammon in 2012 that in order to sell him the animals, Ammon would need a special permit that "would take a period of time to secure," reads an agreed joint statement of facts of the case. Ammon responded via text that the person should just "sneak" the eagle rays to him. Later, after the informant told Ammon that he could not get the permits needed to legally transfer the animals, Ammon responded, in part, "just start doing it. ... who gives a shit, man?" He is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court in Florida on Dec. 3; he faces up to five years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.
Ammon's apparently flippant attitude about laws that protect fish and wildlife is in part responsible for raised eyebrows of local animal welfare advocates as well as with national advocates affiliated with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which has filed complaints with the city of Austin and with the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture – which is responsible for enforcing the Animal Welfare Act – over the Covinos' operation in Austin.
The brothers' operation has also been cited more than once by the city's Code Compliance Department, including for stocking animals at the site without an occupancy permit. It wasn't until Sept. 16 that the brothers were given permission by the city's Planning and Development Review Department to do even limited construction work – specifically to build and test tanks – but a visit to the site last week revealed that far more work than tank building had taken place, including major framing work.
Covino says he's done everything in accordance with city ordinance; the city's planning department disagrees, and says they didn't have permission to do anything inside until their site plan – initially rejected as deficient in all areas except fire protection – was finally accepted Oct. 4. Moreover, department spokeswoman Sylvia Arzola said that no one has yet pulled a permit for the mechanical work – heating and air conditioning work.
Covino expressed shock that the city would say the brothers had been doing any construction work without permission. "I have 20 guys there right now. I have inspectors in there twice a week," he said. "They're there every day; we're no secret. They stop by and look at our craft and talk about how [they'll be] bringing their kids [once we open]. They know we're building. And so if we don't have permits, where is my freakin' red tag? [That is, a shutdown order from the city.] Use common sense." (In other city developments, Council is set today, Oct. 17, to consider a resolution by Laura Morrison that would direct City Manager Marc Ott, in consultation with the Animal Advisory Commission to make a report on existing laws and other efforts to "enhance the health and safety" of animals exhibited in public aquariums, and to what degree the city has the power to regulate aquarium operations.)
And it appears the mechanical permit may not be the only thing the operation still lacks. During a tour of the facility, inside a 22,000-square-foot former Lack's Furniture Store site, Vince Covino said the aquarium, which he said will be home to 10,000 animals, will include four sea otters and two fur seals, animals specifically protected by the USDA, and which require federal licensing to exhibit, USDA spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa told us in August. At that point the Covinos had not applied for nor received permission to exhibit any mammals at the aquarium (even though they were, and still are, promoting the facility in part with public showings of a kinkajou, also protected under federal law). Moreover, Espinosa told us, Ammon's guilty plea in connection with illegally acquired marine animals may impede the Covinos' ability to obtain federal permission to show any protected animals.
Covino insists that he has already secured permission from the USDA to have these animals, and said the permits were posted at the aquarium site. He said Ammon's legal problems aren't an impediment because he and his father are not equally encumbered. When we visited last week, however, no such permits were exhibited. On Oct. 10, Vince emailed us what he referred to as USDA permits; in fact, what he sent was a U.S. Fish and Wildlife permit allowing him to import some species. We noted the difference and asked to see the USDA permits; in an email, Covino wrote that he will obtain all legal permits needed to exhibit the animals. There are several "entities" involved in obtaining the permission and he is working with a "permit expert" to facilitate that process.
Because of the ongoing government shutdown, we have not been able to get back in touch with Espinosa, who has been furloughed, or to search the public database of licensees because the USDA website is also shut down.
Regardless, Covino insists that he and his family have done – and are continuing to do – everything by the book. He says it may make "for a fun story" to write that there's work being done and animals being brought in without permits or licenses, but that's simply not the case. Covino said that he and his family have long cared about marine animals and would never do anything to jeopardize the animals in their care. Furthermore, he said, Austin Aquarium has a top-notch director whose background is in retail fish operations, but they've also hired between eight and 10 employees, each with marine biology or zoology degrees, and will hire a veterinarian soon. But, he says, he can't say the same for those who would malign his operation. "Here's the reality ... there are some people that are not going to come to the aquarium and they're not going to bring their 8-year-old kid, because of a lie," he said. "And that's wrong, it's morally wrong. No 8-year-old should be deprived to come see this amazing place because somebody promulgated a lie."