More than 117 native animals might have to be euthanised as Picton's iconic EcoWorld aquarium and rehabilitation centre is being forced to close - after almost 20 years of saving wildlife and educating the public, the facility's director says.
EcoWorld says 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 - so the building can be repurposed as part of the Port of Marlborough-KiwiRail redevelopment.
But 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".
The port's boss also says they're trying to help rehome the animals - and would consult the Department of Conservation and Ministry for Primary Industries.
An emotional aquarium director John Reuhman says he feels numb, describing the decision as "unbelievable and gut-wrenching".
He says most of the animals will have to be put down - unless the council gives them more time to move the facility, or makes a U-turn altogether.
"I feel sick," he told Newshub. "It's a great way to lose sleep, lose 5 kilos and get shingles - that's the effect it has on a human being.
"It's just unbelievable… they [the council] just say it's a lease problem… they're just treating this place like a boatshed."
He said there's has been a lack of kindness, no compassion, no goodwill and no empathy after 20 years of dedicated work.
"Aquariums are very difficult to run and it's got an amazing collection of native creatures - they're like friends, they're like family to us.
"They are animals - these guys think they're just fish… they've got rights and they're covered by the Animal Welfare Act of 1999. They can't fend for themselves if they were released, they can't feed themselves, they can't defend themselves.
"The only humane thing is that they'd have to been euthanised."
"This is an animal rehabilitation centre for many species. Picton deserves better," wrote one person who signed the petition.
"Our aquarium is an amazing asset to our community for families, schools, tourists, wildlife recovery, marine biologists etc," another wrote. "It is madness to destroy it and to kill defenceless creatures."
Newshub approached the local council for a response to the decision. A spokesperson said Mayor John Leggett had no comment to make, due to it being "a commercial lease for the port to manage as they see fit".
In a statement, Port Marlborough chief executive Rhys Welbourn said 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."