Business & Real Estate

SeaQuest aquarium in Folsom opens to a packed house – and a PETA-backed protest

An interactive aquarium celebrated its grand opening Tuesday at Folsom’s Palladio shopping mall, and while hundreds of guests poured in, a demonstration elsewhere at the mall criticized the business and its background.

SeaQuest Folsom officially opened its doors to the public at 10 a.m. Tuesday after three days of member-only or annual-passholder exclusive access. The aquarium was packed within an hour, as groups — almost all of them families with children — interacted with exotic animals, from stingrays and sharks to kookaburras.

On the other end of the mall near the main entryway, a PETA-approved protest lasted from morning into early afternoon, made up of about a dozen Folsom and Sacramento residents chanting phrases like “Fish are friends, not profit” toward a busy intersection, picketing and condemning SeaQuest.

Those protesters took issue not just with Palladio’s decision to welcome an aquarium, but with SeaQuest — a relatively new, for-profit wildlife company that already has a history of controversy and legal troubles associated with its handful of locations.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals said in a recent news release condemning SeaQuest that its demonstrated business practices are filled with “allegations of appalling neglect and abuse” toward animals.

The newly built aquarium in Folsom delivers an interactive experience, with feeding and petting opportunities involving sea life as well as “flashy fish, brightly-colored birds, riveting reptiles and more,” as promised by its website.

SeaQuest CEO Vince Covino was on hand for the opening, amid a bustle of activity and loud children. He defended his aquarium as a quality source of “edutainment” and said he believes the animals are already “thriving” at SeaQuest Folsom.

“I would say animals do better in an aquarium, because you have a perfectly controlled environment,” Covino said.

Covino and his brother, Ammon Covino, have encountered controversy in the aquarium and wildlife industry. They ran the Portland Aquarium until it was shuttered in 2016.

Employees of the Portland Aquarium alleged that cost-saving measures resulted in the deaths of hundreds of animals in a four-month span in 2013, as documented in a “death log” obtained by The Oregonian. Former SeaQuest employees made similar claims that more animals died than necessary at SeaQuest Las Vegas in 2017.

Reports published earlier this year by The Bee and another McClatchy newspaper, the Idaho Statesman, have detailed other allegations, complaints, fines and violations involving SeaQuest and the Covinos, particularly Ammon.

Among them: a cease-and-desist issued to SeaQuest Littleton near Denver after it failed three Colorado Department of Agriculture inspections due to overcrowding and licensing problems; fines resulting from the unlawful import of capybaras and a sloth; and Ammon Covino’s criminal history, which includes charges relating to his dealings in marine wildlife.

Ammon Covino pleaded guilty in 2013 to conspiring to buy rays and lemon sharks that had been poached from the Florida Keys, the Idaho Statesman reported. Court records show Ammon Covino violated his parole twice, allegedly by helping to open SeaQuest locations.

In an earlier interview with The Bee this summer, Vince Covino denied Ammon’s involvement with SeaQuest.

The new Folsom aquarium boasts that it will display more than 1,000 species, using animal exhibits that rotate throughout the year. A few areas within the 22,000-square foot space were empty or marked “coming soon” Tuesday, but most tanks were filled.

Covino said Tuesday that he does not think overcrowding will be a concern.

“The key to managing so many animals in so many diverse exhibits is to make sure that you have team members that have expertise in each of those areas,” Covino said.

The Folsom spot employs about 70 people, and Covino said many of them came from other California zoos or wildlife habitats, with a few former managers from other SeaQuest locations.

PETA and other critics in the Folsom do not share Covino’s enthusiasm.

“The owners of SeaQuest have been known for animal cruelty,” said protester Harrison Reynolds, an environmental studies student at Sacramento State.

Protesters demonstrated on a sidewalk island for which they had secured a permit near Palladio’s entry at East Bidwell Street and Iron Point Road, one of Folsom’s busiest intersections.

Folsom native Lauryn Goodspeed, holding a sign that read “Say No to SeaQuest” on one side and “SeaQuest exploits animals” on the other, clarified she isn’t officially affiliated with PETA, but was outraged at the aquarium coming to the community.

“This aquarium has been plagued with accusations of animal neglect – outright animal neglect,” Goodspeed said. “... They have no associations with the American Zoological Association or any other protection agency. They don’t donate to any animal rights groups or anything like that.”

SeaQuest is not AZA-approved. Approval by the association is rigorous, and less than 10 percent of USDA-approved animal exhibits nationwide are accredited, according to the AZA website.

Sidewalks within the Palladio complex are private property. Goodspeed said the group has run into problems trying to protest in front of the storefront.

Vince Covino called the Sacramento area “underserved” by aquarium entertainment similar to SeaQuest.

SeaQuest has an aquarium in Utah, Texas, Colorado, Nevada and now California. A Fort Lauderdale location in Florida is scheduled to open in 2019, according to its website.

SeaQuest Folsom got the green light in early 2018, quickly incurring backlash. Small protests popped up at Palladio during its construction, and residents spoke against SeaQuest in City Council meetings. As of Thursday morning, about 4,000 people had signed a petition urging Palladio to replace the aquarium with a different tenant.

Palladio management earlier this year declined The Bee’s requests for comment regarding status on tenant choice and permitting.

The aquarium had a steady stream of visitors on Tuesday.

One visiting family, Vinny and Brittany Greco and their 2-year-old son, Cyrus, drove from Citrus Heights. Upon exiting, they said they were both annual passholders and plan to return often. Brittany Greco said she didn’t realize there would be non-sea animals, but it was a welcome surprise, and that she and Cyrus enjoyed feeding the creatures.

Vinny Greco called the customer service “amazing” and said it was a positive experience.

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