Aquarium in Northern Ireland faces closure

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A top tourist attraction in Northern Ireland is facing closure and sale after a private company pulled out of a deal to take over its running.

The Exploris aquarium in Portaferry, County Down is situated on the shores of the marine nature reserve of Strangford Lough. It offers visitors the chance to get up close to the species indigenous to the area, and to see the process of rehabilitation of rescued sea pumps at its Sea Sanctuary. The aquarium sees around 90,000 visitors each year.

Livingstone Leisure had been in talks to take over the aquarium from Ards Borough Council. The council has owned and operated the tourist attraction since it opened in 1987, during which time it has invested more than £10m in the facility.

The council had been looking at ways to reduce the costs to ratepayers of running Exploris, which costs £600,000 a year to maintain. It had been hoped a private investor would secure investment for the aquarium.

But Livingstone Leisure withdrew after it failed to reach a deal on pensions and now the council has recommended the closure and sale of the aquarium.

Chairman of the council's Development Committee, councillor Trevor Cummings, said the action was being considered with "deep regret".

"This is not a recommendation we make lightly, knowing that it will impact directly on our staff, the town of Portaferry and the wider tourism base," he said.

"However, the level of expenditure required is not sustainable in this economic climate when we face so many financial pressures, and regrettably, we feel this is the only realistic option".

Alliance MLA Alliance Councillor Kieran McCarthy criticised the proposal as "shameful".

He said that the closure of Exploris centre would deprive Northern Ireland of its only aquarium, which was a valuable educational resource, not just for the Strangford area but the whole region.

"This will have a lasting, devastating impact on Strangford and the whole of Northern Ireland," he said.

The decision is not final and still needs to be voted on by the full council, which will happen at a meeting next week.

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