If SeaQuest Folsom, an interactive aquarium, opens as scheduled this November, visitors will be able to explore tide pools, pet bamboo sharks, and feed lorikeets in the Palladio at Broadstone mall.
But some community members say the company’s history of legal troubles, alleged animal safety issues and emphasis on entertainment need more scrutiny before it’s welcomed into the Sacramento area.
Lauryn Goodspeed found out in April that SeaQuest was planning to open a location in Folsom, her childhood home. She said she was initially suspicious of its entertainment-focused mission, but hoped researching the company would change her mind.
Instead, she said, she discovered a “trend of poor business practices” that spurred her to act.
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SeaQuest’s CEO defended his company’s ethos. “I don’t think there will be a bigger voice in the Folsom metro area for animals than SeaQuest,” Vince Covino said Monday.
But along with four other concerned residents, Goodspeed started a Change.org petition to make locals aware of SeaQuest’s track record of community opposition and to call for Palladio to re-evaluate its choice of tenant. As of Thursday, it had more than 3,300 signatures.
“We believe that the welfare of their marine life, birds and other animals will be put at risk, and have reason to be concerned for the safety of consumers, as well as the reputation Sacramento has for being a forward thinking and ethical community,” the petition reads in part.
Kristi Wright, a 20-year resident of Folsom, is one of the petition’s signers. She said she was “truly disturbed” by the prospect of a SeaQuest location in Folsom and hoped the petition would put pressure on the Palladio to change course.
Goodspeed said she and fellow activists have raised these issues at Folsom City Council meetings. They’ve also held a number of small protests, most recently at a Palladio event on Saturday.
If more Folsom residents look into the company’s past, Goodspeed said, she hopes they’ll agree that SeaQuest Folsom needs to be stopped.
SeaQuest’s complicated history
SeaQuest wasn’t Vince Covino’s first aquarium venture.
Before he founded the for-profit interactive aquarium company, he operated the Portland Aquarium with his brother, Ammon Covino.
In 2013, Ammon pleaded guilty and was subsequently jailed for conspiring to buy rays and lemon sharks harvested illegally in the Florida Keys, according to the Idaho Statesman, a sister newspaper of The Sacramento Bee. Ammon, who now owns the San Antonio Aquarium, twice violated his parole by helping open SeaQuest locations, according to court documents obtained by the Statesman.
Vince Covino said his brother showed up at the SeaQuest location in Fort Worth for a tour and has never been involved in SeaQuest’s business.
The Covino brothers no longer own the Portland Aquarium – it was closed in 2016 after employees alleged in 2013 that cost-cutting had cost the lives of hundreds of animals, according to a death log obtained by The Oregonian. Covino told the Oregonian then that the death rate was on par with other aquariums.
In 2017, former employees leveled a similar claim at SeaQuest Las Vegas, alleging in interviews with the Las Vegas Review-Journal that many more animals than necessary died in the months before the aquarium opened and during its initial year of operation. Covino told the Review-Journal that the deaths were not preventable.
SeaQuest now operates aquariums in Utah, Texas, Colorado and Nevada, with a Florida location set to open in November. As of April, none of SeaQuest’s aquariums were accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The accreditation, which evaluates animal exhibitors on the basis of “rigorous” industry standards, is afforded to fewer than 10 percent of zoos and aquariums nationwide, according to AZA’s website.
In spring and summer 2018, media stations near the company’s newly opened Colorado branch uncovered a number of operating issues bedeviling the company.
SeaQuest Littleton, outside Denver, was issued a cease and desist order for some of its exhibits after failing three Colorado Department of Agriculture inspections, according to documents obtained by Fox television news station KDVR in Colorado. Its aviary was overcrowded and its licensing not up-to-date, state inspectors said.
The business was fined for unlawfully importing two capybaras and a two-toed sloth, mammals which a SeaQuest manager temporarily kept in his or her home basement, into Colorado, according to public records released by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Department. The Fox station’s investigation also alleged that the Littleton facility was unclean and incompetently staffed.
Covino said that a tank in the Littleton exhibit had not completed its nitrogen cycling when the aquarium opened and acknowledged that the storefront was “aesthetically not where it should have been.” But he said the tank had not been filled with any fish, and SeaQuest has always cooperated with authorities.
“If guests come and experience SeaQuest, they’re going to see healthy habitats,” Covino said.
Covino said that SeaQuest hires “a solid base of husbandry experts who have put together time and years in other respectable facilities.” SeaQuest Folsom lead employees will train with their counterparts on-site at a different SeaQuest location before returning and hiring their own team, he said.
SeaQuest’s future at Folsom
Despite allegations at other locations and community concerns, SeaQuest Folsom’s business is already booming. As of Monday, the location had sold three times more pre-sale tickets, which are 50 percent off until opening day, than any other SeaQuest storefront, Covino said.
Over the next 90 days, Covino expects SeaQuest Folsom to take in close to 200 rescue animals from across Northern California. People often buy macaws, tortoises, and bearded dragons without realizing what it takes to care for undomesticated creatures, Covino said, and SeaQuest offers them a way out. The Folsom location will also receive surplus babies from other animals at other SeaQuest sites.
SeaQuest approached Folsom with their plans for the aquarium in early 2018, said Christine Brainerd, communications manager with the city of Folsom.
On May 9, SeaQuest submitted a tenant improvement application for interior changes to the 22,000-square-foot space, formerly a Sports Authority.
SeaQuest will have to abide by the Folsom Municipal Code, which allows wild animals to be kept within Folsom if authorized by state or federal law. To acquire authorization, SeaQuest must get a permit from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Peter Tira, an information officer with the department, confirmed that SeaQuest may need permits, but said he didn’t immediately know whether SeaQuest had acquired them.
Marco Mlikotin, a spokesperson for Palladio, declined to answer questions about tenant permitting and business practices.
Covino expects to hire about 85 employees for SeaQuest Folsom over the coming months.
He said that SeaQuest Folsom will likely open before Thanksgiving, but he won’t rush the process.
“We’re not going to open until I see with my own eyeballs that every exhibit is clean and full and presentable,” Covino said.
Wright hopes SeaQuest won’t get that far. “Once it opens, it is going to be impossible to get them out,” she said. “Their prior history speaks volumes.”
Goodspeed said she’s planning to continue protesting, and hopes to speak alongside fellow community members at the Aug. 28 Folsom City Council meeting at the council’s chambers at 50 Natoma St.