Why aquariums need to stay afloat | Column
Aquariums are asking Congress to take these two critical steps for their survival.
An alligator encounter at the Florida Aquarium.
An alligator encounter at the Florida Aquarium. [ Provided ]
Published Aug. 4, 2020

An uncomfortable quiet settled into accredited aquariums across the nation in recent months as our audiences vanished and our animals became online ambassadors. Amid closures, revenue declines and other complications triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, we remained determined to serve the public, committed to providing the best care for our animals, and our two aquariums even rescued and released endangered sea turtles back into our oceans. Now we, along with our accredited aquarium colleagues across the country, are struggling to remain afloat, and our survival depends on Congress.

For decades, accredited aquariums have brought families closer together and nurtured a sense of community that transcends physical and political borders. In a country craving connection during the pandemic, the aquarium collective in the United States has delivered innovative activities and a welcome reprieve while remaining true to our mission.

For safe outdoor opportunities and family fun, the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston led daily Family Nature Challenges. The Florida Aquarium in Tampa spotlighted animals for fans through digital programming, dubbed SEA-SPAN. And we weren’t alone. For parents becoming teachers from home, the National Aquarium designed a digital hub of at-home aquatic lessons and activities for kids. For mental health boosts, Monterey Bay Aquarium released guided meditation videos featuring jellies, kelp forests and more. And for pure joy, Wellington the rockhopper penguin paraded through the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago as a remote film crew followed behind.

While the closing of aquariums to the public created new opportunities, it also cost us significant financial resources needed to keep our facilities operating. The visitors who are our primary source of revenue were gone. Aquariums have been forced to lay off or furlough thousands of staffers, increasing economic hardship for families in communities across the nation.

Our community treasures are economic drivers, educational resources and part of the cultural fabric in cities across the country. Our future is at risk without help from Washington, and aquariums are asking Congress to take these two steps critical to our survival:

— Increase, extend and convert the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) in the CARES Act from a loan forgiveness program to a grant for nonprofits through December 2020, including aquariums with more than 500 employees.

— Allocate $30 million to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to provide emergency grants to U.S. Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accredited members to support our work for federally owned or federally protected species.

These are sensible investments in aquariums that would save jobs and bolster the economy. Prior to the pandemic, America’s accredited aquariums, zoos and museums collectively employed over 700,000 people, hired diverse vendors and engaged business partners, welcomed millions of visitors every year, and contributed an estimated $50 billion to the nation’s economy.

All of that is now at risk if Congress does not act.

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Americans need aquariums. We offer an escape from life’s trials and connect people to nature, we help preserve our quality of life and a vital piece of history, and we serve as an experiential source of learning. Over the last century, we have survived an earlier global pandemic, two world wars, superstorms and economic recessions. We have demonstrated our resiliency, and we have enhanced our economic and cultural connections to our communities.

All of that is in jeopardy now. These are terribly rough waters, and we’re asking Congress for a life raft to help us survive.

Roger Germann is president and CEO of the Florida Aquarium in Tampa. Kevin Mills is president and CEO of the South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston.