VANCOUVER -- The Vancouver Aquarium has been sold to U.S.-based tourism and entertainment company Herschend Enterprises. The popular local attraction has been shuttered for most of the pandemic, and aquarium executives said the financial losses of the closure left them facing a permanent shutdown.

Chief Operating Officer Clint Wright said it was a “dire situation."

“We just knew by about this time last year if we hadn’t found a solution we’d be looking at trying to find new homes for the animals,” he said. “We were facing bankruptcy by about April of this year.”

Last September, the Ocean Wise Conservation Association began looking for someone to take over the aquarium. The non-profit’s president and CEO Lasse Gustavsson said they reached out to more than 70 potential operators both within the province and outside of Canada.

“I think we’ve left no stone unturned,” he said. “Let me be very clear, the alternative to finding a new operator was closing the aquarium, and I’m glad, very glad today that we could avoid that.”

Speaking on a video call at a press conference Thursday morning, Eric Rose of Herschend Enterprises said it was “kind of a no-brainer” for them to express their interest.

“Vancouver and British Columbia is a global tourism destination, and it will recover post-COVID,” he said. “This is an outstanding aquarium, and we intend to apply our financial and creative resources to build upon its historical success.”

The company’s roster includes theme parks, such as Dolly Parton’s Dollywood, the Harlem Globetrotters, and two other aquariums: the Newport Aquarium in Kentucky and the Adventure Aquarium in New Jersey.

The Vancouver Aquarium will still be locally managed, and the marine mammal rescue program will continue. One per cent of annual gross revenues will be donated to Ocean Wise.

Herschend plans to consult with aquarium members, staff and other stakeholders about what they’d like to see in the future.

Peter Fricker with the Vancouver Humane Society said his organization has concerns about the sale.

“It’s a big, for-profit organization that specializes in entertainment and amusement, and animals don’t exist for our entertainment and amusement,” he said, and added the VHS hopes to see the aquarium consider virtual “immersion” experiences using technology rather than live creatures. “We’re concerned about whether the priority is going to be about animal welfare or about making money.”

Wright said he doesn’t expect major changes from the new ownership.

“They really see Vancouver as a wonderful facility. They want the very best of Vancouver, they don’t want to come in and change it,” he said. “They have the resources to see us through the rest of this pandemic. We didn’t have that...they’re going to give us the bandwidth, if you like, the runway to be able to think, to plan, to process without the fear the pandemic is going to close us down.”

Ocean Wise would not share how much the sale was worth. The former operator said the Vancouver Park Board also agreed to transfer the Aquarium’s licence agreement to Herschend.

In an emailed statement, the board said it is “pleased the Vancouver Aquarium was able to find an operational solution after a financially difficult year”, and the terms of the current lease agreement, which extends to June 30, 2054, remain unchanged. That agreement also waived the cost to Ocean Wise for the first five years, meaning an annual license fee would not be charged until 2024.

So far, there is no timeline for reopening the aquarium’s gates.