Stormont To Urgently Discuss Exploris Following 27,000 Facebook Likes

IN meetings with Friends of Exploris and others political parties and campaigning groups earlier this week, Minister for the Environment Mark H Durkan said that he would raise the issue of the threatened Portaferry Exploris aquarium closure with the Northern Ireland Executive tomorrow (Thursday 3 October).

Following a public outcry at Ards Borough Council’s decision to close Exploris, more than 27,000 people have ‘Liked’ the “Save Exploris” page on Facebook in less than a week. Supporters of Exploris now believe that a central government funding intervention is all that can prevent Ards Borough Council from putting the closed signs up on this flagship tourism, environmental, rural regeneration and education facility… with serious and significant  consequences to the local economy, environment and social life.

[caption id="attachment_42928" align="alignright" width="427"]A smoothhound in Portaferry's Exploris aquarium during shark week in 20011. A smoothhound in Portaferry’s Exploris aquarium during shark week in 2011.[/caption]

Dr Julia Sigwart, Portaferry resident and Director of Queen’s University Marine Laboratory said: “Exploris is the best possible place to showcase the exceptionally diverse marine life of Strangford Lough, which has just become Northern Ireland’s first Marine Conservation Zone and is one of the most important marine nature sites in Europe.

“Unlike most aquaria, Exploris draws water directly from the Lough, meaning the displays are as close as possible to the natural environment. The infrastructure is already in place, and with some investment the aquarium and its seal sanctuary are the perfect place for everyone to engage with the Lough and learn why it is so important.”

The campaigners maintain Exploris could and should highlight Northern Ireland’s contribution to marine renewable energy research and development with SeaGen and other experimental sea energy devices and EU funded research on seaweed biofuels in Strangford Lough. This work attracts interest from all over the world yet there is nothing on site to tell the story of Northern Ireland’s role in this globally important work.

[caption id="attachment_42929" align="alignleft" width="150"]Divers clean the glass in the Exploris tanks. Divers clean the glass in the Exploris tanks.[/caption]

Portaferry is in the seventh most deprived rural area in Northern Ireland.  According to figures produced by Global Tourism Solutions in a report to Ards Borough Council in 2011, Exploris generates a vital £3m to this shaky local economy annually and without it and the visitors Exploris attracts, other rural development initiatives in the area will be cut off at their foundation.

County Down Rural Community Network representing community groups across CountyDown has just joined the support for the Friends of Exploris campaign. The loss of the aquarium’s 100,000 visitors per year would also be a substantial loss for the DRD ferry service.  Exploris is a leading, year round attraction and plays a key role within the Strangford Lough Tourism Destination and Mourne Coastal Route.

10% of the Exploris attraction’s visitors are school groups. Many children in Northern Ireland have  not visited at some time the aquarium. The first generation of visitors is outraged that their own children may be deprived of the experiences and memories they were given.

Speaking on behalf of Friends of Exploris, Cathie McKimm said that at this time central and local government should be rushing to capitalise on the new opportunities for the facilities not rushing to close it down. She added: “The fundamental structure of a world class aquarium is in place, but is suffering from lack of vision and investment.

“Tens of thousands of people are astonished at the decision, as they make no business, social or moral sense. This should be the jewel in Ards Borough Council’s crown, but instead it’s about to become a festering sore in one of the most important and beautiful regions of the world.”