Aquarium with checkered past plans to open in South Florida mall

(WSVN) - South Florida is known for its beautiful beaches, reefs and sea life. But one shopping mall’s plan to bring the ocean indoors is making waves. 7’s Brian Entin investigates.

Protesters in Las Vegas…

Protester: “These animals belong in the ocean.”

And near Sacramento.

Protester: “Stop SeaQuest!”

Controversy has followed SeaQuest Aquarium across the country.

And now — a new location is planned for the Galleria Mall in Fort Lauderdale.

Don Anthony, Animal Rights Foundation of Florida: “It’s a tourist trap. That’s what it is.”

SeaQuest’s website says it’s an “interactive aquarium” with hundreds of species.

You can dip your feet into the “fish spa” where fish nibble at your toes.

And kids can dress up as mermaids and swim with stingrays.

Don Anthony: “In South Florida, you don’t need to capture these animals and put them in an aquarium. You’re just a couple of miles from the beach in one direction, you’ve got the Everglades in the next direction.”

The Animal Rights Foundation of Florida is outraged and sent this letter to the mall’s general manager.

It calls SeaQuest’s plan “disturbing” and dives into the aquarium’s well-publicized past.

In Las Vegas, the aquarium made headlines after former employees said animals including eels, stingrays and octopuses died.

Chris Stansell, former employee: “They were constantly battling these fluctuating ph balances that were killing animals.”

And there is a South Florida connection to the company’s CEO. In 2012, his brother was busted for illegally shipping sea life from the Keys to an aquarium in Idaho.

The Feds said the CEO’s brother, Ammon Covino, bought spotted eagle rays and lemon sharks without a permit.

He was sent to prison — and was supposed to stay out of the aquarium business … but he didn’t.

A judge in Key West found he was “involved in the preparation of the opening of two SeaQuest Aquariums.”

That landed him back behind bars.

Brian Entin: “Will the CEO’s brother be involved in the Fort Lauderdale location?”

Elsa MacDonald, SeaQuest: “No. No. No. We have a very qualified leadership team that’s running the organization.”

SeaQuest’s national marketing director says their staff is well-educated with degrees in biology and zoology, and they will have 50 people working at the Fort Lauderdale location.

She says the number of deaths in Las Vegas was exaggerated.

Brian Entin: “Did a large number of animals die? Was it in the hundreds?”

Elsa MacDonald: “So, to my knowledge, there were not hundreds of animals that died at the Vegas facility. We have a death log like all other aquariums and zoos, and similar facilities have death logs.”

The company is working with the state to determine which animals will be allowed in the mall aquarium.

They’re hoping to have otters, snakes, sloths, birds, stingrays and sharks … and be open in time for Christmas.

And like in other states, animal activists are already planning protests.

The Galleria at Fort Lauderdale released a statement that reads, “We are committed to providing an enjoyable environment for shoppers who have a wide-range of preferences. SeaQuest Fort Lauderdale will offer a family entertainment/educational option featuring an interactive adventure through rainforests, deserts and the deep sea with hands-on exhibits.”

CONTACT 7INVESTIGATES:
305-627-CLUE
954-921-CLUE
clue@wsvn.com

Copyright 2019 Sunbeam Television Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.