Wednesday, August 21, 2013


By The Associated Press 
on December 02, 2013 at 2:02 PM, 
updated December 02, 2013 at 2:19 PM

Continuing coverage of the Portland Aquarium and its owners.

KEY WEST, Fla. — The former president of an Idaho aquarium convicted in the illegal shipping of protected sharks and rays from Florida has been sentenced to a year and a day in prison.

A federal judge in Key West on Monday imposed the sentence on 40-year-old Ammon Covino, former president of the Idaho Aquarium in Boise and co-founder of Portland Aquarium in Oregon. Covino is also barred during two years of probation from working in a wildlife exhibit.

Court documents show Covino admitted involvement in illegally obtaining and shipping three spotted eagle rays and two lemon sharks for the Idaho Aquarium. 

Intercepted communications showed Covino told Florida shippers to ignore the law.

The aquarium itself also pleaded guilty, agreeing to pay a $10,000 fine and donate $50,000 to the National Fish and Wildlife Federation.

Court documents also accused Covino of trying to illegally acquire lemon sharks for the Portland facility. However, co-owner and Ammon's brother Vince Covino said that there are no lemon sharks or spotted rays at the Portland Aquarium. 

"All animals at Portland Aquarium have been legally acquired and properly permitted," Vince Covino said in a statement earlier this year. "Portland Aquarium has demonstrated its patience in waiting for proper permits as evidenced by empty otter and puffin exhibits. Both species are still in the proper permitting process and will not arrive on site a day sooner than they are legally approved."


Covino and Conk, who cofounded the Idaho Aquarium, were caught trying to purchase spotted eagle rays and lemon sharks illegally in Florida to be shipped to Idaho. The two will be sentenced in December in federal court in Florida, and each faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. 

Written by Michelle Kretzer 21 hours ago

Originally posted on August 23, 2013.

Update: Hundreds of Animals Die at the Portland Aquarium—and Austin May Be Next

In just three months at the Portland Aquarium, more than 200 animals have reportedly lost their lives. Bamboo sharks, sea horses, stingrays, garden eels, and many species of fish have died from starvation, infections, a power outage, attacks by incompatible tank mates, getting caught in drain screens, being hit by falling rocks, escaping from their tanks, and unknown causes. A marine biologist at the facility stated that it was "cutting corners to save money" and that "so many deaths … were … preventable." 

The Oregonian newspaper reported that since February—almost seven months ago—the aquarium has not had a veterinarian on contract to care for the approximately 10,000 animals it confines. Also according to The Oregonian, the aquarium owners, Ammon and Vince Covino, "acknowledge that the facility has gone without regular veterinary services." The Oregon Humane Society has launched an investigation, and PETA has asked it to pursue criminal cruelty-to-animals charges against everyone responsible, including the Covinos.

Meanwhile, we've turned our attention on the new aquarium that the Covinos want to open in Austin, Texas. Even though they apparently haven't obtained all the required building permits, reports indicate that they have started construction and may already be holding animals at the site, including sharks, iguanas, lizards, a kinkajou, and possibly a crocodile. PETA has contacted Austin Animal Services and asked it to conduct an inspection to determine whether the animals are suffering as a result of abuse, neglect, or stress from the loud construction noise.

We're also calling on the City of Austin's Health Authority to get involved because the agency is charged with enforcing Austin's prohibition on keeping dangerous animals, which the law defines as any animal who is "capable of inflicting serious bodily injury to a human." Iguanas can suddenly charge and bite without warning, sometimes causing serious injury, and captive kinkajous are also known to bite and scratch humans. Crocodiles are reported to be 168 times more dangerous than sharks, killing 2,500 people every year. PETA is urging the City of Austin's Health Authority to take custody of all the dangerous animals being held at the site.


While we go after marine-animal prisons through legal channels, you can help go after them via the accountant's office by never buying a ticket.


Portland Aquarium opens

PORTLAND, OREGON -December 8, 2012 - A giant octopus moves around his tank at the Portland Aquarium, Monday, Dec 10, 2012, at 16323 S.E. McLoughlin Boulevard in Oak Grove. Thomas Boyd/The Oregonian 

By Victoria Edwards, The Oregonian on August 19, 2013 at 4:00 PM, updated August 21, 2013 at 1:52 PM

More than 200 marine animals died this spring at the Portland Aquarium from starvation, infection, high temperatures, animal-on-animal attacks and unknown causes, according to a death-log obtained by The Oregonian. Among the casualties were bamboo sharks, sea horses, garden eels, sea stars, crabs and dozens of fish.

Barbara Baugnon, a spokeswoman with the Oregon Humane Society, which helps enforce state animal-cruelty laws, said her agency is investigating the nine-month-old aquarium. She declined to provide specifics.

During the period covered by the death log, Feb. 18 to May 16, aquarium owners acknowledge that the facility has gone without regular veterinary services. The aquarium's former veterinarian said that even when he was under contract the facility failed to properly quarantine new arrivals and routinely delayed emergency treatment to save money.

"I feel those animals were subject to undue pain and suffering to save money," said Mike Corcoran, an exotic animals veterinarian who left in February over what he said were concerns about animal welfare. Corcoran said he repeatedly recommended quarantine procedures that were never put in place.

The log kept by aquarium staffers and provided to The Oregonian by a former employee recorded deaths at the aquarium virtually every day. Corcoran called the death toll "excessive."

Vince Covino, who opened the Portland Aquarium with his brother Ammon in December, declined to be interviewed but responded to questions submitted by email. He said the aquarium's death rate, which he declined to specify, is consistent with what he's observed at other aquariums. "And in many cases, we believe we have done better," he wrote. "We spare no expense in ensuring our animals have the best health care possible."

Aquariums typically don't share mortality rates, said Chris Spaulding, director of the aquarium science program at Oregon Coast Community College, making it difficult to establish an industry standard.

"The goal is to minimize losses as much as possible," he said.

"There is loss at aquariums; you can't deny that," said Caroline Emch-Wei, a 25-year-old marine biologist who volunteered at the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport for five years before starting late last year at the Portland Aquarium. "But there were so many deaths that were straight up preventable."
Emch-Wei left the Portland Aquarium shortly after Corcoran and echoes his concerns. "They were cutting corners to save money," Emch-Wei said.

Vince Covino estimates that the Portland Aquarium houses 10,000 animals representing 3,000 species. Given that number, 200 deaths in three months would represent an annualized mortality rate of 8 percent.

By comparison, the much larger Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport estimates its collection at 15,000 animals representing 250 species. Erin Paxton, public relations coordinator for the aquarium, said the Newport facility experiences an annualized mortality rate of "significantly less than 1 percent."

The Covino brothers

The Covino brothers opened their first aquarium in 2011 in Boise, Idaho, their home state, and announced plans last summer to open a second facility at the former Black Angus Steakhouse on McLoughlin Boulevard south of  Milwaukie. Neither of them has a degree in marine biology, Vince Covino said.

Although most animal exhibitors are regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there is an exception for cold-blooded animals. Like many such facilities, the Portland Aquarium operates without a marine aquarium license, inspections or accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, considered the gold standard of best practices.

The collection of certain marine animals, however, is regulated by state and federal authorities.

In February, Ammon Covino was arrested in Boise on one count of conspiracy and four counts of unlawful sale or purchase of marine animals. He is accused in Florida of buying four eagle rays and two lemon sharks without proper permits and transporting them to their Idaho Aquarium in Boise.

While the charges against Ammon Covino center on the Idaho Aquarium, the grand jury indictment alleges that he also tried to illegally acquire lemon sharks for the Portland Aquarium last fall, when the facility was still under construction. Ammon Covino pleaded not guilty to the charges in April, and a trial is set for September. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison on each count, prosecutors say.

Marine biologist Emch-Wei said Ammon Covino's arrest was the breaking point that prompted her to leave.

Vince Covino said those coming forward with allegations are either disgruntled former employees or people who don't know enough about marine life to understand Portland Aquarium operations.

The aquarium's original director, Steve Blair, came to Portland with 25 years of experience with marine aquariums, including a stint as assistant curator at the nonprofit Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, southern California's largest aquarium and one of 38 in the United States accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Blair directed installation of the Portland Aquarium but left just days before it opened. He declined to speak about the circumstances of his departure, citing a confidentiality agreement. Vince Covino confirmed that Blair signed a separation agreement.

Corcoran, the former veterinarian, said Blair left because he was butting heads with the owners over animal care and safety. Vince Covino said Blair wasn't the right fit.

New management

Shane Dietz, who succeeded Blair, has 20 years of experience setting up and maintaining aquarium tanks and worked at Petco for 12 years, including stints as an aquatic specialist and aquatic manager. He has no degree in marine biology or a similar field.

Dietz said transportation, a process beyond control of the aquarium, causes 98 percent of aquarium deaths. He explained that fish suppliers sometimes place animals in small boxes that may be flown thousands of miles, sitting on hot tarmacs and jostling in delivery trucks before reaching their destination.

That causes stress, he said, which can lead to infection or disease. Delicate specimens, such as sea horses, sometimes can't recover after being transported, he said.

Dietz said the aquarium acquires other animals, such as cold-water fish and crabs, from fish markets because it does not have a permit from the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Department required to collect some marine animals for exhibition. Those animals, meant as food, are often beat up and mishandled. "Unfortunately we can't always bring the animal back from the brink of death," he said.


Aquariums typically quarantine new arrivals for at least 30 days to allow them to recover from the stress of shipping and prevent the spread of disease, according to Corcoran and other aquarium managers.

Corcoran and another former Portland Aquarium marine biologist, Lisa Van Etten, said she believes that insufficient time in quarantine led to many of the Portland Aquarium deaths.

A quarantine log kept by aquarium employees and provided to The Oregonian indicates that few of the dozens of new fish and marine animals that came to the aquarium were quarantined for 30 days or more.

Van Etten, who left the aquarium in June, said the entire population in a tank would sometimes die after animals were introduced, which she attributed to inadequate quarantine procedures.
Dietz contended that new animals are isolated for a minimum of 35 days. He said the quarantine log provided to The Oregonian doesn't give a complete picture because he keeps multiple logs for multiple quarantine systems and animals can be moved from one to another. He also said animals may spend time in quarantine before coming to the aquarium, resulting in a shorter quarantine once they arrived.

Veterinary care

Corcoran, now an exotic animal veterinarian in Arizona, made weekly visits to the aquarium and was on call for emergencies, a typical setup for an aquarium of that size, he said. On his weekly visits, he said he sometimes saw animals that had been suffering for days from serious medical conditions. When he asked employees why he wasn't called for an emergency visit, he said they told him the aquarium didn't want to pay the added expense.

Vince Covino said aquarium managers always approved special requests for veterinary care. However, he said some employees and managers sometimes disagreed about what merited an emergency call. "A vet visit is lower cost than replacing an animal, so even if we were only concerned about money, we would be foolish to not call in a vet for the safety of an animal," he said.

Since Corcoran left, the aquarium has not had a veterinarian on contract. Dietz, the aquarium's director, said he's in the process of signing on a Seattle veterinarian who specializes in exotic and marine animals to fill that role.

Meanwhile, the Covinos are in the process of building their third aquarium, scheduled to open in Austin, Texas, in December.

-- Victoria Edwards

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