Many of the country’s aquariums could close for good unless they are given more government support, or allowed to reopen along with zoos.
The British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums says the public should be allowed to visit aquariums from next week, in the same way indoor retail and zoos have been given permission to reopen.
Many aquariums are spending up to £10,000 a day to feed and run their venues – without getting the usual funding from ticket sales.
The UK’s largest aquarium, the National Marine Aquarium (NMA) in Plymouth, says it is ready to reopen safely.
Chief executive Roger Maslin said: “96% of our income comes from tickets bought by the generous public. We’ve had no income since the lockdown. So we’ve lost over £1.1m income, but at the same time we’ve had over £1m in costs [food and up-keep].”
“We can’t close the aquarium, can’t furlough animals, it’d be great if we could but we can’t, therefore we need to keep the aquarium going and animals cared for,” he added.
The NMA says it has implemented COVID-19 safety measures such as hourly time slots, a “huge” reduction in daily ticket availability, more washing areas and increased cleaning of exhibit areas.
But aquariums across England have not been included in the list of venues allowed to reopen from 15 June, unlike indoor retail and zoos.
Dr Christoph Schwitzer, chair of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA), told Sky News aquariums are ready and can adapt just like large retail stores have.
“Like zoos, aquariums can also introduce online ticketed systems whereby they can control the numbers of people they let on site – they can also put a one-way system around their sites for visitors, many already have that, which is very easy, the same as zoos.”
There is help for aquariums – the government has made grants available of up to £100,000, but only if they are at immediate risk.
But for many that money would cover less than two weeks’ running costs.
“If the situation persists it is imperative the government puts in place additional funding opportunities for aquariums that will help our members get through this crisis so we don’t see a wave of deferred closures in the next winter or spring 2021 when organisations run out of cash,” added Dr Schwitzer.
As well as zero ticket sales, conservation and education projects have also gone on hold.
The NMA’s head of conservation and education, Nicola Bridge, said: “We have a huge education programme here at the NMA – 30,000 children a year come through our doors and take part in curriculum based lessons – all has had to stop.”
She added: “But we’re adaptable, we’ve done a huge amount of learning on how to do it online.”
BIAZA hopes its members will be allowed to reopen in July, but warns it will take years for aquariums to recover.