Support grows for sea lion research station as closure nears

Sea lion centre set to close

A sea lion research station on the Port Moody waterfront that has struggled to secure funding will shut down before the end of the year, an event that will trigger the return of the four resident Steller sea lions to captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium. 

But while the transfer of the four pinnipeds into full-blown captivity marks a turning point for the one-of-a-kind research facility, a community of supporters has sprung up in defence of the Open Water Research Station.

The sea lions have spent the last 16 years at the centre of the facility’s open-water research program, one that has played a pivotal role in conservation efforts as far away as Alaska. But Ocean Wise Conservation Association recently pulled its share of the funding — the Vancouver Aquarium program has long paid trainer salaries, vet bills and the cost of fish at the research station — and the facility had no choice but to close, said director Andrew Trites.

Since then, he said, streams of visitors have spontaneously showed up, all hoping to catch a glimpse of something many never knew was on their doorstep.

“I’ve lost count of how many people have come down to see the site. We’ve been here for 16 years but it’s as if people never knew it existed,” Trites said.

In preparation for their move to the aquarium, the animals have already begun a mandatory quarantine process that includes blood tests to ensure they are pathogen-free and a pre-transfer stage that has them confined to their open-water pens. When they are moved to the aquarium, they will be moved as a group and kept separate from some of the other sea lions at the aquarium — at least, in the beginning. 

“We’re not breaking up the family,” Trites said.

Even as the animals began their quarantine process, school-aged children, parents, environmentalists and several mayors have been in touch with the facility expressing interest in keeping it alive. An anonymous Port Moody donor whose children had spent time at the Bamfield Marine Science Centre on Vancouver Island put up $3,000 a month for six months to cover the facility’s lease with Reed Point Marina until June 2020.

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