Fish Tales

UNDERWATER WORLD, the freestanding aquarium at the Mall of America, made an impressive debut last year: Some 6,500 people per day laid down $5-$9 to gawk at exotic ocean life. Since then attendance has fallen off by about 2,000 a day. And while aquarium officials maintain this is due to the ravages of winter, others have grumbled about the high cost of admission and the aquarium's failure to produce the 15,000 fish it once touted as its target population. Acccording to a former aquarist with UWW, those problems are partly the result of a long comedy of errors at UWW.

In the fall of 1995, Daniel Montag was hired by Tarlton Aquastar, the Dallas-based developer of UWW. Although the aquarium wouldn't be finished for nearly a year, staff had been hired to set up temporary tanks and start building the tropical fish collection. According to Montag, the first glitch arose when the search for warehouse space took months rather than weeks. "The project was supposed to take 12 months from start to finish. But this delay, and others, cause it to be scrunched into three," he says. Other delays were incurred, says Montag, because of miscues by a since-departed UWW manager.

These involved the preparation of the storage tanks and the filtration systems, he says; but that wouldn't have made much difference to the first batch of exotic fish sent to UWW. Around 100 fish died en route to Minneapolis after being bumped from a jet's cargo hold in Chicago and getting stowed in an unheated warehouse.

Once they began getting live fish into the aquarium, says Montag, they died at an alarming rate due to shortcuts taken in prepping the tank. "There was a three-week stretch where fish were dying daily," he says. "Sometimes 20-30 a day." He says the floaters were scooped up by staffers, put into plastic bags and hauled out to the dumpster. "There were days when the bag was so heavy I could barely lift it," he adds.

Montag eventually complained to authorities. Although the DNR determined that a parasite outbreak was killing the fish, and the Humane Society likewise sent an investigator to look at the tanks, Montag maintains that these were empty gestures. "The DNR didn't do anything further, and the Humane Society sent a behaviorist, not a marine biologist or a parasitologist," he says. After months of fighting what he deemed the company's indifference, says Montag, he quit UWW in May of last year.

Dr. Heide Greger of the Animal Rights Coalition says she is not surprised at the alleged apathy that greeted Montag's complaints. She maintains that since the general public fails to view fish as it does other animals, the aquarium industry has escaped scrutiny for its practices. "These organizations are making a lot of money off the public, and often times use non-degreed employees to care for the collections. Why pay for scientists when you can get by with cheaper help? Why bother to keep fish from dying when you can just buy replacements?"

Cathy Bourne, an investigator with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, acknowledges that fish aren't regulated to the extent that other animals are. One point of concern, she notes, revolves around fish suppliers known by her agency as "reef robbers." "Most of the fish we see," she says, "come in from the Pacific Rim, and we don't have the authority to regulate their trades. Some suppliers will dump sodium cyanide into the water. It stuns the fish and makes it faster and easier to catch them," she explains. And while it undoubtedly aids suppliers in filling aquariums' orders more quickly, it takes a toll on the environment: "Sodium cyanide decimates the coral reefs, kills the other fish [in the vicinity] and causes serious digestion problems for the fish that survive."

"We pay more for our fish, so we know that we aren't dealing with unethical suppliers," says Michelle Biesiada, a spokesperson for UWW. She also disagrees vehemently with Montag's version of events at the aquarium, saying that the former aquarist is merely a "disgruntled employee" with a score to settle. "What it boils down to is a personality conflict" between Montag and his former manager, she adds.

John Hewitt, a marine biologist hired as a temporary consultant for the aquarium, agrees in part with Biesiada's analysis. But he adds that Montag's claims about administrative delays are accurate: "When you fall behind, it creates problems. Especially when its months rather than weeks. And its the most crucial part, the creation of a living environment, that unfortunately suffers the most."

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