After successfully transitioning its unique catch and release model from the mini-aquarium to its
new facility, the Ucluelet Aquarium is catching the science community's eyes. Aquarium curator Laura Griffith-Cochrane said a change in the tide is looming regarding how aquariums are structured and the Ucluelet Aquarium could become the drummer other facilities follow towards catch and release practices and oceanic education.
"When other aquarium representatives come here and see this and see it as being feasible it's a little bit mind blowing sometimes for some of them," she said. "There's a lot of fascination in how it's made possible."
She said the catch and release process is worth the additional costs and complications it carries because of the message it conveys to aquarium patrons.
"It's really important because it fosters the connection not just to the animal but to the environment that it's from and with how much change that we're seeing in our oceans right now those connections are very, very, important," she said.
She said the Ucluelet aquarium's model has been adapted in Newfoundland and Campbell River-the new home of Ucluelet's former miniaquarium- and aquarium representatives from Nova Scotia, Haida Gwaii, and the Gulf Island have reached out expressing interest.
"We're still pretty new so we're still learning and it's all trial and error, there's nobody else like us so as we learn we need to pass on all of that information to the other places so they don't have to repeat the same kind of mistakes," Griffith-Cochrane said.
"It's a really big learning process but I think a lot of groups are very interested in doing what we've done." One of the Ucluelet Aquarium Society's original founders Stefan Linquist recently attended a prestigious conference in Woods Hole Massachusetts where he presented on the Ucluelet Aquarium and compared its practices to those used in large-scale aquariums like Vancouver and Toronto.
The conference's focus was the history of zoos and aquarium conservation.
At the conference, Linquist suggested the Ucluelet Aquarium's ability to adapt and change gives it a significant advantage.
He said large scale aquariums traditionally see a 50 per cent spike in attendance when a new expansion or
exhibit is unveiled but this attendance boost disappears within 5 years.
"There's a major spike and then drop off in attendance. I think that's partly because people feel like they've seen it, they've been there and they've already experienced what it has to offer," he said.
"One of the nice things that you come to realize about a regional aquarium like the Ucluelet Aquarium is that you can change things up," he said. "It can recreate displays and it can track seasonal changes and annual changes in the marine environment thereby giving people something new to look at and learn about."
He said the aquarium's ability to adapt and change was well received by his audience.
"They had really never heard of anything quite like what we were doing so to them it was very interesting," he said.
Linquist has seen the aquarium develop since the mini-aquariums first day of operation and is proud to say the society has kept up with its original values.
He said the aquarium society continues to live up to its ideals regarding releasing organisms back into the wild and providing accessible hands-on experiences to patrons.
He touted the catch and release process as significantly distinct.
"I think it's something that as an organization we've become quite used to and have almost forgotten just how novel that is," he said. "When I tell people in the aquarium industry about that their minds are blown."
He said releasing animals back into the wild is important because it com
municates to patrons that the organisms are life forms and not pieces of art to be enjoyed in eternity.
"They aren't our captives that we're holding on life support, as I think is often the case with large aquariums, they're sort of like visitors to the aquarium as well that people get to interact with," he said.
He also highlighted the aquarium's focus on interaction.
"One of the things that I think gets lost quite easily in larger aquariums is finding a person to talk to and actually interact with," he said.
Another key feature the aquarium society has maintained
is the aquarium's connection with the harbour, according to Linquist. "It's kind of a part of the ocean rather than a representation of it, which I think is an important distinction," he said. "A lot of aquariums are trying to recreate something whereas we're sort of extending something."
He said the move to the more aesthetically impressive new aquarium means the society must step up its game up to cater to heightened expectations and cited Ucluelet aquarium founder Phillip Bruecker's pride in the mini-aquarium's ability to "under promise and over deliver."
Linquist said this mantra was nailed by the 500 sq. ft. "plywood shack" that sat across from Ucluelet's district office as the mini-aquarium.
"You'd go in there with very low expectations... some people wouldn't even look in the door because they looked at something so modest and thought 'well how could that possibly be any good,'" he said. "And then you get inside and it would really blow people's minds partly because they were so close, and getting their hands wet, to these organisms that they had no idea even existed."
He said the aquarium society must now synch its
performance with increased expectations.
"When you come down the street and you see this beautiful new building it's something that we need to find ways of understanding what people's expectations are and making sure that we're continuing to meet or exceed them," he said.
He is confident the new facility can cook up the same magic as the miniaquarium with a different recipe.
"It was just something that happened by accident in the previous building and I think now it's something that's going to take on a slightly different character," he said.
"No less interesting and no less engaging but just slightly different."
An impressive cross-section of international interest the Westerly recently surveyed at the aquarium revealed the magic is very much alive.
"It's small but nice," said Anand Letlabo who had traveled to Ucluelet from Norway with his wife and two children for a family vacation. "It's showing very nice the life in the tidal zone."
Lise Gallen of New Brunswick had traveled to Ucluelet for the first time and was excited to check out the aquarium.
"This aquarium is amazing,"
she said. "I like the interactive touching and the fish that you would never see unless you're at the bottom of the ocean."
Sandro Danner and Barbara Huetz were visiting Tofino from Germany to take in some whale watching and hiking but wet weather prompted them to detour into Ucluelet to check out the aquarium and they were stoked on their detour's results.
"It's really a nice place," she beamed. "I get to touch the animals here. I can tell all my friends that I touched a sea star."