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Aquarium plans shark exhibit to attack its low attendance

Coming this summer to the Florida Aquarium: a special exhibit on sharks and rays.

In its search for ways to boost attendance, the aquarium is planning the temporary exhibit in conjunction with researchers at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota and the University of Miami.

Plans are still under way for the exhibit, which will complement the aquarium's permanent exhibits on Florida's coral reefs, wetlands, bays and beaches.

"I think it's going to give locals a reason to want to come and see their aquarium again," aquarium president John Racanelli said Friday.

The aquarium's permanent exhibits include a variety of sharks, including two large sand tiger sharks in the coral reef exhibit. The new exhibit will feature those and more as a way of addressing criticism that the 2-year-old attraction is long on high-minded educational purpose but short on sizzle.

"They're looking at probably bringing about 20 different species that we don't currently have," said aquarium public relations manager Lisa Patterson.

Aquarium administrators also are looking for footage of sharks in action and stories from people who have had shark encounters for a video presentation for the exhibit.

The temporary exhibit mostly will use existing space, although director of husbandry Frank Steslow said the aquarium will need to add additional quarantine space and exhibit tanks that can be used for future displays. The aquarium so far has lined up $50,000 in corporate support to help put on the $200,000 display.

The shark exhibit, the first in what aquarium supporters hope will be a series of traveling or staff-produced displays, was one of two pieces of good news announced Friday that were not directly related to the aquarium's finances.

Officials also learned Thursday night that the American Zoo and Aquarium Association has granted the Florida Aquarium accreditation and full membership.

The accreditation opens up marketing, education and husbandry opportunities with the association's 175 zoos and aquariums in North America as well as with supporting corporations, including Microsoft.

"It's also a real important stamp of approval," Racanelli said. Lowry Park Zoo and Busch Gardens are similarly accredited.