The Ucluelet Aquarium is humming through a successful summer season.
The Aquarium re-opened in May and began welcoming a steady stream of “wonderful visitors” flowing in when COVID-19 travel restrictions were eased on July 1, according to aquarium curator Laura Griffith-Cochrane.
“There’s a lot of visitors that are coming in for the first time who have never been out to the West Coast before and we’re also seeing a lot of people who have been waiting to come back to the West Coast all year and are really excited to finally be able to return and see all these things that they’ve been missing,” Griffith-Cochrane told the Westerly News.
She said the aquarium’s exhibits showcase “millions” of creatures, and through the catch and release model the aquarium operates under, return more than they collect as visiting animals arrive through water pipes and collected specimens breed.
“There’s so much life in our water column and so much that’s growing on the side of the main pool. We have so many barnacles and hydroid colonies, nudibranchs and tubeworms that are all flourishing in our exhibits. So, technically we do have millions, but most people will be thinking about fish, crabs and other invertebrates,” she said.
“There is a very large number of animals. I couldn’t quantify exactly how many because that’s the beautiful thing of having a collect and release aquarium with a flow through system. Our exhibits are colonized by the species in the wild and the species in the aquarium breed and send their young back out to the wild, so we’re just an extension of the harbour. We’re changing all the time.”
She added the recent heat wave and other environmental events have increased interest in ocean life among both residents and visitors.
“That created a situation in shallower areas and intertidal areas where water temperatures increased to levels that became deadly to a lot of marine life,” she said. “There were huge mortality events in tide pools both on the east coast of the Island and the west coast of the Island.”
She said the water temperature in Ucluelet’s harbour during late June’s heat wave rose to an alarming 16.5 degrees, which is much higher than local species are used to.
“When marine species start to exhibit temperature stress, their immune system can become compromised and then it can become affected by parasitism and disease in ways that can lead to death,” she said.
Since the facility uses water from the harbour, aquarium staff had to keep a close eye on water temperatures, oxygen levels and feeding schedules to adapt to the heat.
“There are quite a few ways that we can make sure that the specimens we have are getting the things that they need, it just requires a little bit more work,” Griffith-Cochrane said.
The heat has also temporarily prevented the presence of an octopus, a key patron attractant, as the octopus the aquarium had was released and will not be replaced until temperatures calm down.
“Octopuses are one of the most sensitive specimens that we bring into the aquarium because they need a large amount of oxygen,” Griffith-Cochrane said, explaining that oxygen decreases as temperature increases.
“I know that that’s disappointing for some people, but we do only want to bring in things that are going to thrive during their stay in the aquarium and, also, we have some fish that are super cool and I am so excited about. We have a tiger rockfish which is a really rare thing for us, we have skates for only the second time in the Ucluelet Aquarium history and we’re thrilled that we get to display them again and learn about them with the public. Those are so special to have. I know it’s disappointing that we don’t have an eight-armed resident, but we do have some beautiful things that I hope people will come in and check out.”
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She expressed concern that heat waves like the one that broke temperature records across Vancouver Island in June could become an annual occurrence.
“We are anticipating that this could become the trend where we’re starting to see warmer temperatures every year,” she said. “As a community, because we rely heavily on fishing as an industry, we could start to see effects on our economy if fish populations suffer because of these increased temperatures.”
She added popular animals like sea stars would be catastrophically impacted by rising temperatures. She said sea stars are “greatly affected” by water temperature and said the West Coast’s disastrous sea star wasting syndrome outbreak in 2014 was largely caused by rising water temperatures.
“Especially in those populations that were catastrophically affected by sea star wasting syndrome, further stresses will only hinder their ability to recover,” she said.
READ MORE: Epidemic hits local sea stars
She noted sea stars are vital to the West Coast because they help protect kelp forests from being gobbled up by sea urchins.
“We have a lot of reasons for why we really want kelp forests to be flourishing both because they support fish populations and because they’re incredibly productive from an oxygen perspective. So, the further loss of sea stars is something we should be concerned about,” she said.
She said operating under the catch and release model allows the creatures the aquarium borrows during the season to fulfill their biological destiny and inspires connectedness between patrons and the animals that awe them.
“The other thing that I really like about it is we showcase what is representative of the time. For example, if we had done a big collection in 2011 and never released, we might still have a large population of sunflower stars when, in reality, those populations collapsed because of sea star wasting syndrome and it might give someone a false idea of ecological health,” she said.
“By repeatedly collecting and releasing, we are representing what is really going on in real time in local environments and representing what is important for people to be considerate of when they go to explore local ecosystems either for the first time or the thousandth or two thousandth time…We’re all connected and, as cheesy as that sometimes can be portrayed, it’s a real thing living in this world and it’s important that we are aware of our effects on the world.”
The aquarium is expecting to close for the season on Nov. 30 and the decision on whether to hold a public release day event has not yet been made due to the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Griffith-Cochrane said the global pandemic brought financial strain to the aquarium, but the community’s support buoyed the facility and helped keep it afloat.
“The reason that we exist is because of the Ucluelet community. We’re not just the Ucluelet Aquarium in name, it’s in practice, it’s in everything that is possible in the Ucluelet Aquarium. There’s no way we could exist without the people that helped to create this,” she said. “We saw it when volunteers were painting our walls and building our floorboards for the new building and it’s still true in how locals have come in and supported us and made sure that we’re able to continue. I couldn’t imagine this place without the Ucluelet community…There’s a lot that this facility brings to the community, but we really get to be here because of how the community has supported us.”