EcoWorld owner breaks down in tears as beloved aquarium forced to close

The owner of a well-loved wildlife centre in the South Island broke down in tears as the permanent closure of his aquarium looms.

EcoWorld Aquarium and Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in Picton will shut after almost 20 years of saving wildlife and educating the public. The Marlborough District Council's port company, Port Marlborough New Zealand, advised them in April its 20-year lease at Picton Wharf wouldn't be renewed.

Port Marlborough says a possible lease extension was discussed with EcoWorld, but the aquarium sought "different terms that were not acceptable... and this has been consistently conveyed". This means more than 117 native animals may need to be euthanised.

John Reuhman, who has been EcoWorld's director for 19 years, broke down in tears during The Project on Wednesday while discussing what it will feel like to lock the doors at EcoWorld one last time.

"The reality hit yesterday. I haven't slept for about 11 weeks, I've had shingles, I've lost 5 kilograms, I've got guts that just ache - I don't know how I'm going to cope," he says.

He believes the animals wouldn't survive being transported to Auckland's Kelly Tarlton's Aquarium or the National Aquarium in Napier, leaving them with no option other than to euthanise them.

"These animals can't survive, they can't fend for themselves, they can't feed themselves, they can't defend themselves. Many of them are injured, impaired, and rehabilitated animals," Reuhman says.

Among their marine creatures are stingray, groper, cod, snapper, gurnard, sand sharks, warehou, pufferfish, and crayfish.

Although Port Marlborough discussed a lease extension and resettlement, Reuhman says they rejected it because they didn't offer enough to adequately cover the aquarium's cost.

"They offered us $75,000 for the building - it's worth $2.5 million. The first option was to convert it to offices, the second option was clear the site then we'll consult with iwi and community, the third option is clear the site [and] we might use it as a work yard."

EcoWorld manager Janelle White says even if they did leave and clear the site, that would cost them about $250,000.

"We're still going to be $175,000 out of pocket even if we were to accept their $75,000," she says.

Reuhman believes Port Marlborough should've told them "two or three years ago" that their lease wouldn't be extended.

"I've been calmed down by my lawyers but honestly, the behaviour's been disingenuous, I've been led up the garden path."

John Reuhman and Janelle White.
John Reuhman and Janelle White. Photo credit: The Project

In a statement, Port Marlborough chief executive Rhys Welbourn says it's offered to support the aquarium.

"Some time ago Port Marlborough and EcoWorld discussed a possible extension of the lease. However, EcoWorld sought different terms that were not acceptable to Port Marlborough and this has been consistently conveyed to EcoWorld.

"Therefore the lease has come to an end in accordance with its agreed terms. We are now trying to help the business vacate its premises, and assist with the sustainable rehoming of the aquarium's marine life and other animals.

"Following the expiry of the lease it is important for us to consider other uses for the land that deliver better cultural, environmental and economic benefits for the region and the community as a whole."

Watch the video above.