Portland Aquarium denies allegations of mistreatment of animals

MILWAUKIE, Ore. - The Portland Aquarium is under investigation after being accused of mistreating and causing the death of hundreds of animals.

On Tuesday the aquarium denied those allegations.

The Oregon Humane Society is investigating after it received a complaint. But OHS is not commenting beyond that.

According to the Portland Aquarium, a former employee claimed the aquarium has a death log showing an extraordinary high death rate - 200 deaths in three months this spring.

But aquarium co-owner Larry Smith said that's not so.

"We have a death log that we keep, but the death log encompasses every little snail and every little creature that we have in here," he said. "And we have over twenty-five hundred micro-organisms and fish and types of animals in the building. So it's not unusual to have two hundred."

On Tuesday afternoon, aquarium manager Vince Covino wrote KATU an email that said, "The death log submitted appears to be fabricated, or to be skewed by such deaths as dozens of snails, baby feeder fish, and others. ..."

Both Covino and Smith told KATU that disgruntled former employees are misrepresenting what happened at the aquarium.

"Everybody is top notch here. We had a couple people that we had to let go because they weren't up to standard and unfortunately they decided they wanted to vent on us through the press and that's kind of what's going on right now," said Smith. "As far as mistreatment of all these other animals, there's no mistreatment that goes on here."

Earlier this year, police arrested one of the aquarium's co-owners. Ammon Covino is accused of buying marine animals illegally at his aquarium in Boise. His brother, Vince, denied any wrongdoing and was not arrested.

The aquarium has only been in business for nine months.

Co-owner Vince Covino issued the following statement when we asked for a response from the Portland Aquarium:

The humane society has not contacted us, but we welcome an investigation.

With over a century of combined experience and advanced degrees in zoology, marine biology, and aquarist experience, our highly qualified and capable team works hard to ensure a safe and healthy environment for our animals. To review our husbandry leadership team and credentials, visit

Jay Hemdal wrote an article in December 2009 that will help the public understand the matter at hand, so we begin with perspective of industry standard quoting from his article, "Public aquariums typically maintain very complete records of the fishes in their charge. Additionally, they offer their animals higher quality medical care than home aquarists can provide. This allows for the potential to use mortality rate data from public aquariums, as a benchmark for home aquarists. There are some potential obstacles in drawing a comparison such as this; many public aquarium fishes are larger species, which tend to be longer-lived. This may be balanced though, by the tendency for public aquariums to also acquire more delicate, exotic species having the potential to be shorter-lived. Public aquariums do understand that it is very easy for mortality rate information to be misconstrued, possibly putting them in a bad light. Think for example of a newspaper reporter hearing that the average annual mortality rate at an aquarium being 10%. They might write a headline stating "Aquarium Needs to Replace All of its Animals Every Ten Years!" Of course this isn't true, and does not take into consideration fish in the collection that have a normal longevity of less than ten years. Truly, the only real way to use captive mortality rates in anything other than a relative comparison is to express the rate as a percentage of normal longevity in the wild. In this case, since captive fish are not (or hopefully not) exposed to predation as they would be in the wild, the captive mortality rate will be lower than the rate in the wild.

Just as an example, the mortality rate of post-quarantine fish had been monitored on a monthly basis at a medium-sized public aquarium for the past 20 years. The mortality rate they use is calculated by multiplying the number of animals dying in one month by 100 and then dividing by the number of fish in the collection at that time. This gives the mortality rate for that month. That figure is then multiplied by twelve to give an extrapolated yearly figure - one that is easier for people to understand.

A long term departmental / curatorial goal for that facility has been to maintain a mortality rate of below 10% on an annualized basis, with an upper limit of 15%. In one instance, the monthly rate calculated to be 16.9%. This triggered a response that included changes in husbandry protocols and the type of fish being acquired. This in turn resulted in a lowering of the mortality rate to well below 10% annually - hovering between 6 and 8%."

The link to the full article can be found here:
Measuring the mortality rate of any aquarium is absolutely futile if the natural life expectancy of each species is determined and then averaged. For instance, if an aquarium had 1,000 species with a life expectancy of two years, and 1,000 species with an average life expectancy of six years (2-6 years is typical for most tropical fish) then the beginning benchmark for mortality should be four years. If humans had a four-year life expectancy, one out of four of us would die every year, on average. Also considered is the deaths of FEEDER fish and FEEDER snails. There are FEEDER fish and FEEDER snails that serve as food for many of our species. They have a 10-20 second mortality rate. This is the role they serve in the wild as well as in captivity as part of the food chain.

If an aquarium has a disproportionate number of shorter life span exotic species, such as a giant pacific octopus, which has a life span of three years in captivity, then the mortality rate of that aquarium must be measured by its collection of animals' mortality rates. There are literally dozens of other considerations in measuring mortality, such as age of species when acquired, distance shipped, and a myriad of other factors which makes a blanket statement with a quoted percentage virtually useless.

However, based upon the numbers quoted in the Oregonian article, the death log submitted appears to be fabricated, or to be skewed by such deaths as dozens of snails, baby feeder fish, and others. It is unfortunate that the Oregonian chose to portray a fictitious death log as authentic, and even more disappointing that an employee that we laid off would fabricate, then illegally submit proprietary information. It is defamatory to our highly qualified team of marine biologists who do an excellent job of caring for our animals, including our various breeding programs.

In a related matter, one of the owners of the Portland Aquarium, Ammon Covino, is facing a trial next month. He and another man, Christopher Conk, are accused of illegally buying and transporting animals from Florida to Idaho. The two are directors of the Idaho Aquarium in Boise.

Court documents allege that Ammon and Conk negotiated for the purchase of illegally harvested spotted eagle rays and lemon sharks from an individual in Florida. Ammon and Conk are facing 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

The case does not involve the Portland Aquarium.