SEWARD — The Alaska SeaLife Center, a popular destination for tourists, home base for the state’s only marine mammal rescue program, and a hub for scientific research on animals of the North Pacific, will close permanently in fall if it can’t fill the gap in a budget that has cratered during the pandemic, according to its leadership.
The center is facing a dramatic falloff in visitors who normally come by bus and boat load to see its roaring sea lions, diving birds, giant octopus and other marine exhibits. Tara Riemer, the SeaLife Center’s president and CEO, estimates it will take $2 million for the center to survive until the 2021 visitor season. This month, Riemer is publicly discussing its predicament and asking the public for help.
“That would give us enough to get through the winter,” Riemer said of the fundraising goal. “Now if next summer is a total bust, then it doesn’t get us through that. But it would get us to next summer.”
Riemer said she’s optimistic about finding a way for the 22-year-old center to survive, but said that if help is going to come, it needs to happen by the end of summer to prevent the SeaLife Center from becoming one of the most high-profile organizations to be shuttered in Alaska due to COVID-19 fallout.
“We need to know by Sept. 30th, can we even make it through the winter?” Riemer said. “Because when you’re dealing with the sort of animals we have here, you can’t just run out of funds in the middle of winter and close.”
“It’s kind of the ‘p-word’ that I realized I had to stress, like, ‘We have to raise this money by this date or we’re going to close,' ” she said. “Permanently.”
Recipe for trouble
On a Monday morning in early July, about midway through what is normally the busiest part of the year, just a few cars were parked in the lot closest to the center’s glassy front entrance between downtown Seward and the Resurrection Bay shoreline. No tour buses lined up at the curb. No cruise ship docked near the harbor.
Mondays should be busy. Riemer said a cruise ship would arrive every other Monday in a normal summer, and on those days the center could expect 1,500 visitors. The minimum for any July day would be 1,000 people during summers, she said. Occasionally they’d hit 2,000. So far this summer, the SeaLife Center has had 25% of the visitors it would normally have.
“I think we’ll be lucky to see 250 today,” Riemer said.
While that’s a familiar story for many businesses in Alaska’s tourism-heavy economy, the SeaLife Center is uniquely hard-pressed to lower its expenses significantly to weather the storm, Riemer said. They have eliminated most seasonal jobs and summer internships. Year-round staff are stretched thin to cover tasks like ticketing, interpretation and custodial work. Starting July 18, salaried staff took a 10% pay cut. A few open jobs have gone unfilled.
But suspending operations temporarily is not an option. Animals in its care for exhibitions, research projects and rehabilitation require highly trained staff, Riemer said. The animals also require the seawater that is carried into the facility by a sophisticated pump.
“Our electric bill is about $2,000 a day, and the vast majority of that goes to pumping seawater,” Riemer said.
“You can’t just lay off your staff and turn out the lights and really reduce your costs,” she said.
About $4 million of the SeaLife Center’s $7.5 million annual budget comes from visitor-generated revenue, Riemer said. Much of the rest comes from grants from federal agencies and private foundations and from donations. Grant funding is usually restricted for use on specific programs and projects.
Riemer estimates visitor revenue will total about $1 million this year. It has also received $1 million in federal relief from the Paycheck Protection Program. That leaves the center about $2 million short of what the nonprofit needs to break even, according to Riemer.
Other cuts are hard to find. Reducing animal exhibits, for instance, can deepen revenue production problems. The Steller sea lions require a lot of space and staff, but they bring paying customers to the front door.
“If we don’t have sea lions, we’re not going to get the same number of visitors,” Riemer said.
Trimming education, research and rescue programs comes with a cost in lost grant money, Riemer said. It would also leave the SeaLife Center with a lot less to showcase to visitors and fundamentally alter the center’s purpose. “You’re decimating your mission programs and what we’re really here for, and you’re not really saving much,” Riemer said.
“We’d be a tourist attraction, and that’s not really what we are,” she said.
A day in the SeaLife
The Alaska SeaLife Center opened in May 1998, a $52.9 million project that took three years to build. More than $38 million from Exxon Valdez oil spill settlement funds were used in its development and construction to establish a center for education, wildlife research and marine mammal rehabilitation. Those remain its core functions.
But as this season has made clear, visitors now keep the SeaLife Center afloat. About 160,000 people is typical in recent years prior to 2020, Riemer said. Admission fees range from $14 to $30, depending on age and Alaska residency status, to gaze at aquariums, touch some of the smooth and spiny creatures and watch birds flitter and dive in the aviary.
Clint Pulsipher and Kelly MacWhorter showed the birds to their 6-month-old daughter, Camille. “A place like this highlights everything that is so wonderful in Alaska through a walk-through,” she said.
Elsewhere that day, visitors lined an enclosure as Pilot, the grumbly 11-year-old, 1,900-pound male Steller sea lion was fed by staff.
“He’s the showstopper,” said a mammalogist.
Visitors see only a portion of the center’s activity.
Out of public view, research technician Madeline Meranda worked with mammalogist Evelyn Lentz to photograph two ringed and two spotted seals kept in pools at the rear of the center. The seals are part of a research project to gather baseline biology and physiology information, data that may help scientists identify and understand changes in the wild population as sea ice diminishes in the Arctic.
Lentz then joined mammalogist Juliana Kim to conduct daily assessments of Forrest and Kuliak, two Steller sea lions. The staff worked hand-to-nose with the slippery beasts, instructing them, via hand and voice signals, to raise their flippers or open their gaping maws for inspection. Both animals were part of a study, now concluded, that examined maternal behaviors in an effort to learn more about a steep decline in the wild population of Alaska’s Steller sea lions.
Kim, 34, who started as an intern at the center in 2009, said her “dream job” gives her a unique chance to care for animals while contributing to scientific and conservation efforts.
“We are so invested, not just in the work that we’re doing, but also very emotionally invested in our animals. And so it’s a very scary thought to think that we might be closing,” Kim said. “Where are these animals going to go and who’s going to take care of them? And who knows about these animals to take care of them well?”
Other staff members expressed similar combinations of pride and unease.
Carrie Goertz, the center’s director of animal health, said her work on several beluga whale projects has been among her most rewarding. That includes the 2017 rescue and recovery of a stranded beluga calf, later named Tyonek, the only beluga rehabilitated by the center. The round-the-clock effort provided scientists with a wealth of information from an endangered Cook Inlet beluga population.
This month, Goertz is treating six stranded harbor seal pups. They too give a valuable glimpse into the health of the wild population, said Mandy Keogh, Alaska marine mammal stranding coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA, which oversees all Alaska marine mammals except polar bears, walruses and sea otters, leans on the SeaLife Center-collected information for disease surveillance and to monitor changes in the environment, Keogh said.
“For some species, it’s where the majority of information we know on that species comes from, from a health perspective,” she said.
Keogh said no other facility in Alaska has the permits or capability to rehabilitate stranded marine mammals. Goertz said she tries to concentrate on animal care rather than focus on the SeaLife Center’s financial turmoil but said that worry creeps in during the slow moments of her workday.
“Regardless of all the noise, I have animals to take care of and I’ve got to focus on that,” Goertz said.
Husbandry director Lisa Hartman passed a 1998 picture of herself posted on a stairwell wall as she walked to check on a Steller sea lion pup born 11 days prior. Hartman is one of just two current employees who have worked at the SeaLife Center since before it opened to the public. She said there have been other tough financial times for the center in those years.
“This one feels different to me. This one’s hard,” Hartman said. “Yeah, I’m worried.”
As the newborn pup nursed from Mara, its 17-old-mother, Hartman explained that the SeaLife Center is the only facility in the U.S. that has successfully bred Steller sea lions in the last 25 years.
“There’s still so much for us to learn. Every day we’re trying to answer questions, and every day our environment is changing so drastically that we’ll never answer them all,” Hartman said.
Looking for a way forward
Riemer, the SeaLife Center’s CEO, said she’s trying to be transparent with staff. “I can’t tell them if they have a job on Oct. 1,” she said. “I can’t tell them if I have a job on Oct. 1.”
But, for now, there’s a limit to how much she’s willing to plan for closure, for fear that it will dampen efforts to survive. Organizations Outside that might receive SeaLife Center animals each have their own economic struggles now and would be unlikely to entertain hypothetical scenarios months away, she said.
“I have told our husbandry director, ‘Do not plan on where you’re going to send animals,’” Riemer said.
Since Riemer has been speaking publicly about the SeaLife Center’s financial straits, she has been encouraged by the response. Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski both said they have been working with the center to direct it toward coronavirus relief and other federal funds that might be available to help.
“It’s more than just a Seward tourist attraction. I view it as a statewide treasure in terms of what they provide to us,” Murkowski said.
“If we have another oil spill, God forbid, if the SeaLife Center were shut down, we would have no place to send any marine mammals or birds that need to be cared for,” she said.
Last month, Riemer asked the City of Seward for $500,000 dollars. Seward City Manager Scott Meszaros said the city council is considering the request and is exploring whether the federal relief money it expects to receive through the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act can be used to help.
The city council hasn’t taken any formal action yet, but Seward Mayor Christy Terry said officials understand the SeaLife Center’s impact as one of the city’s largest employers and as a regional draw.
“It’s extremely real to us. … We are realizing what a precarious situation we’re in,” said Terry, who also serves on the SeaLife Center board of directors.
“We really recognize that Seward’s future and the SeaLife Center are tied together,” she said.
Seward also has a direct stake in the dilemma: It owns the building and the land it’s on. Meszaros called the SeaLife Center the city’s “largest tangible asset.”
“If they fail, we all fail here,” he said.
As the SeaLife Center launches a membership campaign this month, Riemer’s optimism is tempered by the possibility that people will assume someone else will bail them out, or that people have fatigued from giving to COVID-related direct relief programs, she said.
“We’re kind of falling through the cracks, but at the same time I don’t think that the people of Alaska are going to want us to just go away and this be a big empty building at the end of downtown Seward,” Riemer said.
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