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Tide starts to turn for hard-hit New Orleans aquarium

The attraction lost 10,000 fish because of Katrina, but Midas the sea turtle is home and things are looking up.

Associated Press
Published December 29, 2005


NEW ORLEANS - It's lunchtime and Elvira and Nick are having a quick bite, then it's back to an afternoon of swimming in their big glass house on the Mississippi River.

Their midday routine has resumed at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, where the two 5-foot tarpons are once again sharing meals and a home with Midas, the 300-pound green sea turtle who returned after a six-week exile in Texas.

Slowly, this watery world is rebuilding from the staggering blow it suffered in Hurricane Katrina: Generator problems killed up to 10,000 fish, including some rare species nurtured over many years.

Like New Orleans itself, the aquarium is now on a long road back. And like the city, the revival will depend, in part, on hardy holdouts and returning evacuees, some still living far away - including Satchmo, Voodoo and 17 other penguins now cooling their heels in California.

While no one here equates the disaster at the aquarium to the epic human devastation left by Katrina, the animal losses are still heartbreaking to devoted workers who tend to these sea creatures each day.

"Not only is it sad because you know how much life is lost . . . you know you'll never be able to replace it like it was," says Lance Ripley, assistant curator of fish.

The aquarium has begun restocking and plans to reopen this summer, but it won't be easy. Finding the right fish to fill a million gallons of water not only takes time and money, but generosity and luck.

Hundreds of fish already have been donated by other aquariums. And expeditions are being planned to the Florida Keys, the Caribbean and other spots to collect more.

"There are no pet stores that sell 9-foot sharks," says John Hewitt, the aquarium's director of husbandry. "You've got to get them some other way. We're going to try and collect as many animals as we can."

But it will be difficult, maybe even impossible, to replace some losses - such as a 13-foot small-tooth sawfish called Mr. Bill, and a 250-pound goliath grouper, both on the endangered species list, along with nine sandtiger sharks, whose numbers have been dwindling because of commercial fishing.

"Some of these collections have taken years to accumulate," Ripley says. "We had five species of freshwater stingray. We had dozens of breeding projects over the last 15 years. We had a jellyfish gallery 10 years in the making. All that's gone."

And there's no quick way to bring it back.

"You have to repopulate slowly," Hewitt says. "To capture a couple of sharks and move them across the country, you have to have holding spaces, isolation and quarantine areas . . . Catching them is the easier part. Getting them from here to there without mortal damage is what gets complicated."

Once they do arrive, fish can't simply be dropped in water. Some need time to warm up to captivity, the public - or each other.

But newcomers are taking the plunge.

The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga and the Underwater Adventures aquarium at the Mall of America in Minnesota donated catfish, shark pups, crappie and hundreds of small reef fish. A seafood restaurant in Hattiesburg, Miss., handed over a 2-foot shark that had outgrown its tank.

"Everyone says, "If we have it extra, it's yours,"' Ripley says.

Louisiana fishing clubs have offered help to the New Orleans aquarium, which also received an invitation from the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago to use its 85-foot research ship, the Coral Reef II, for a collecting expedition in the Caribbean.

Repopulating the aquarium is important to the city's economy. It's a big tourist attraction, drawing 1.4-million visitors a year along with its adjoining IMAX theater. (Another popular spot, the zoo, lost just a few animals and reopened in November.)

The problems at the aquarium came after workers who had hunkered down in the building during the storm were told to evacuate as the looting edged nearer and floodwaters rose.

Ron Forman, president and chief executive officer of the Audubon Nature Institute, which operates the aquarium, ordered his staff out, fearing for their safety. He stayed behind, joined by several New Orleans police officers, who set up a command post.

The officers traded their dirty, wet uniforms for gift shop shorts, caps and T-shirts and hand-fed several animals.

Don Kinney, an officer who brought along his pet cockatoo, Yogi, scrounged around the aquarium's refrigerator and kitchen and found fish for the otters and penguins, red meat for the white alligator and frozen (but thawing) mice for the birds.

Toting a flashlight and a feeding bucket, Kinney was a welcome sight to the hungry holdouts.

"It gave me a good feeling in my heart knowing I was feeding animals and keeping them alive," says Kinney, who lost his own home in the floods and ended up bunking on an aquarium bench.

But no one could save thousands of fish after the generator clogged and couldn't produce enough electricity to run systems that add oxygen, rid the tanks of waste and keep the water cool.

"It was a total domino effect," Ripley says.

Cool, clear water turned hot, dirty and toxic. "Every day it got worse," Forman says.

When workers returned the weekend after the storm, they faced a grim scene: cloudy, bacteria-filled tanks littered with thousands of dead fish.

"It was incredibly difficult," Hewitt says. "It's like burying your children - and that's all I'm going to say about that."

Having worked at the aquarium its entire 15 years, Hewitt had a deep attachment to the creatures.

"I took many of them out of the wild," he says. "There's a great deal of responsibility that comes with that . . . to ensure that the animal has the best possible chance of a long, productive life."