Pier 39 aquarium staff furloughed — but what about the fish?

Aquarium of the Bay raising funds from public to keep up operations during shutdown

Businesses across San Francisco have furloughed employees, and Aquarium of the Bay is no different.

After the shelter-in-place order was instituted in San Francisco, the aquarium’s customers were forced to stay home. To adjust, the aquarium furloughed 70 of its roughly 100 employees.

But someone still had to stick around to take care of the fish and marine life, which usually swim behind 2.5 inches of clear acrylic, just out of reach of scores of tourists.

That poses a unique challenge, George Jacob, President & CEO of the Bay Ecotarium, the entity that oversees the Aquarium of the Bay, told the San Francisco Examiner.

While some businesses can furlough employees to save funding during the shelter-in-place, the aquarium needs its remaining 30 employees to care for 24,000 marine animals, constituting 186 species, including sevengill sharks, bat rays, jellies, and a giant pacific octopus.

“They require 24/7 care and we have to run three shifts, which we do. With or without visitors, we maintain a very high standard of animal care,” Jacob said. “We take our missions very seriously.”

That mission is also expensive.

Collections Coordinator Mike McGill places some new animals on exhibit. (Courtesy photo)

Those thousands of animals live in 750,000-gallon saltwater tanks nestled at the entrance to Pier 39, and all of those critters have complicated feeding needs, Jacob said. Support staff like IT and janitorial employees also are still working, to support animal care.

To help absorb the cost to maintain its Bay Area marine life, the Aquarium of the Bay started a Go Fund Me campaign to raise money from the community. The Go Fund Me page states the museum needs $500,000 to continue with animal care during closure through April 7, but in ten days it has only raised $4,550.

While that isn’t anywhere near the aquarium’s stated need, Jacob said the aquarium is prepared to shoulder the cost of a long-term shelter-in-place order and keep the animals fed and cared for.

Should the worst happen, however, there are state processes in place to help those animals find permanent homes in other aquariums, Captain Patrick Foy of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said.

When aquariums or other wildlife facilities shut down, the Department of Fish and Wildlife comes in and works with existing staff to maintain care of the animals, he said. The department traditionally serves as a permitting entity to possess wildlife.

Curator Kevin McEligot gives a physical exam to a wolf eel, Anarrhichthys ocellatus. This wolf eel was the father to hundreds of offspring born at Aquarium of the Bay in 2018 that can now be seen at aquariums world-wide. (Courtesy photo)

In the event of a closure, “we’re still very much involved in trying to keep those animals alive and healthy, and trying to find them homes” Foy said. But as far as the Aquarium of the Bay, “no conversation has taken place” regarding possession of its marine life.

There’s at least one silver lining to the shelter-in-place order, Jacob said: More volunteers are helping the aquarium feed its sharks.

As an outreach and engagement effort, the Aquarium of the Bay allows volunteers to dive with its experts to feed its animals, including its sharks, which include tiger sharks and leopard sharks.

“We’ve actually seen an increase in people willing to dive,” Jacob said. “That increase is probably attributed to shelter-in-place, where people have more time on their hands.”

And since those divers wear full wet suits, replete with a breathing apparatus, divers may still be considered socially distant — from the sharks, too.


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