CLEARWATER — Five times since 2010, federal inspectors have cited the Clearwater Marine Aquarium for problems that have the potential to harm marine mammals.
That's four violations more than the Georgia Aquarium, a lodestar for CMA as it seeks to build a new $160.5 million facility in downtown Clearwater.
SeaWorld in Orlando didn't have any violations during the same period. Neither did the Florida Aquarium in Tampa. The Miami Seaquarium had three.
Between September 2010 and June this year, U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors cited the nonprofit Clearwater aquarium for:
• Chipping paint and rust in the main dolphin pool
• Salinity levels in the dolphin stranding tank that were too high for 58 out of 74 days
• Storing fresh food for the animals on rusty shelves and beneath a cooling unit fan that leaked condensation onto food.
• Failing to perform weekly coliform bacteria tests on pool water during three months in 2010.
• Rusted wire and chipped paint in the river otter exhibit that inspectors said otters could pull off and swallow.
All were violations of the federal Animal Welfare Act, which protects marine mammals, and were classified as "indirect" violations, meaning they weren't an immediate threat to an animal's life.
One inspection in 2012 found no violations.
Some marine mammal experts say the violations are troubling and could endanger the animals.
But aquarium CEO David Yates called them minor and the inspectors' reports "subjective" and easily misunderstood.
In an email to the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday, Yates wrote that any discussion of the violations should be put into the context "of the success we have had, and how we have overcome the struggles to get there. … Numerically, I can accurately state that seven years ago, our animal care was a 0 or 1 on a scale of 1 to 10. We are now an 8.5-9."
CMA leaders insist no animals are in danger and say the aquarium, built in 1958 as a city sewage treatment plant, is simply difficult to maintain. They argue that comparing the Clearwater aquarium with those in Atlanta, Orlando or Tampa is like comparing apples to oranges.
"Those other aquariums were built to be aquariums. (CMA) was never built to be an aquarium," said former Mayor Frank Hibbard, an aquarium board member working to persuade voters to approve a new aquarium on leased city land in a Nov. 5 referendum.
Crews regularly paint over rust and flaking paint to protect the animals. And in recent years, CMA has completed more than $7 million in improvements, including a state-of-the-art water filtration system.
"Anything that is not perfect, we always want to improve. We don't take anything lightly," Yates said. "But the vast majority of the time we are 100 percent compliant."
Reports issued after the inspectors' visits are brief — usually just a few sentences — and the inspectors, who work for a part of USDA called the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, aren't allowed to talk to media, spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said. She wouldn't comment on the quality of CMA's facility and animal care.
"We're looking for zero noncompliances in every facility we inspect," she said. The agency's 119 inspectors make unannounced visits to about 7,500 licensees each year. The agency normally keeps inspection records for just three years.
Located midway between downtown Clearwater and Clearwater Beach, CMA rocketed to international fame after the 2011 movie Dolphin Tale. Crowds flocked to see its star, Winter, a rescued female dolphin the aquarium taught to swim with a prosthetic tail. Attendance boomed from just over 200,000 in 2011 to 750,000 last year.
The aquarium has put much of the money it has made since the movie into fixing its aging facility, Yates said.
"The growth, the attendance, everything we've done has gone into the massive improvements we've made," he said.
When he arrived in early 2006, Yates said, the aquarium was in bad shape. Since then, it has received plaudits from charity watchdogs and nonprofit monitors. The USDA even had its inspectors meet there in 2008.
However, animal-rights organizations and a former USDA inspection supervisor familiar with CMA have a different take on conditions at the aquarium.
Dr. R.O. Overton, who left the USDA about a decade ago after a 32-year career, said rust and paint chips are to be expected in an old aquarium. But he called high salinity levels "a major issue" and the lack of consistent coliform bacteria testing "alarming."
"These are clear-cut violations," he said.
Inspectors have a tough job, Overton said, caught between aquarium managers who see inspections as threats to their business and animal-rights activists who often oppose keeping marine mammals in captivity.
Dr. Robert Brandes, a veterinarian and USDA inspector who in 2011 ordered CMA to immediately correct its salinity levels, "is the most competent inspector I know," Overton said.
Dr. Michael Walsh, a University of Florida professor and veterinarian who worked at SeaWorld for more than 20 years, has been CMA's contracted veterinarian since 2007.
Walsh said the USDA inspectors play an important role in keeping animals safe. "They're a fresh set of eyes," he said.
The aquarium gets its salt water from the Intracoastal Waterway, which has high salinity levels, he said. A better filtration system has helped. He never found elevated sodium in the dolphins.
As for rust and paint chips, he said, "Certainly we'd like to have an environment without rust, but we're kind of stuck with it."
That the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service wrote up the aquarium at all raises concerns, said Jenni James with the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which litigates animal cruelty cases across the country.
"The problem with APHIS is that they're severely understaffed, so when I hear of even a minor violation, it makes me go, 'Huh, they took the time to write that up,' " James said.
Lisa Wathne, a captive exotic animal specialist with the Humane Society of the United States, called the violations troubling.
"The fact is, all of these violations are easily remedied but have been ongoing problems," she said.
Yates said animal-rights groups that haven't visited the aquarium shouldn't draw conclusions based on "pieces of paper."
"Clearly, that's nothing more than a cheap shot," he said.
Every few years the aquarium empties the main dolphin tanks and sandblasts and repaints to stem rust, which comes from iron rebar embedded in the concrete pool walls, Yates said.
Yates also noted that the high salinity and coliform testing violations occurred in January 2011, before the influx of movie cash and many improvements.
Dr. Frances Gulland, a member of the federal Marine Mammal Commission, which works with federal inspectors, said inspections aren't a perfect tool to measure how animals are being treated in some aquariums. Inspection protocols were developed with "display" aquariums like SeaWorld in mind, rather than small wildlife rehab facilities, she said.
"Quite commonly, smaller rehab facilities might have violations such as paint chips," she said.
According to Yates, there isn't another aquarium in the country that has gone from an underfunded and problem-plagued backwater to a turnstile-whirring sensation so quickly, which has presented "unique challenges and opportunities."
The USDA violations and criticism of the aquarium's facility or practices can be seen as an argument for a new aquarium, said Hibbard, the former mayor. If voters approve the new aquarium, the problems behind most of the violations will dissolve, he said, in the gleam of a state-of-the-art facility.
A new aquarium won't just look nice, said Walsh, CMA's vet. It will provide a safer home for the animals.
"I think it's perfectly safe over there, for the most part, just like any other place," Walsh said. "We need to fix things in the short term. But let's keep moving ahead. To fix the problem, we need to move into a larger, better space."
Times news researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Charlie Frago can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4159. You can follow him on Twitter @CharlieFrago