EXCLUSIVE: 2 former Waikiki Aquarium directors say facility is mismanaged

Published: May. 6, 2015 at 1:03 AM HST|Updated: May. 6, 2015 at 2:00 AM HST
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WAIKIKI (HawaiiNewsNow) - Two former directors of the Waikiki Aquarium told Hawaii News Now it suffers from dysfunctional management that has led to rapid turnover in key positions and may have resulted in some of its animals dying recently, a charge the current man in charge denied.

Founded in 1904, the facility is the second-oldest public aquarium in the country, well-known for its Hawaiian monk seals, colorful fish and corals.

Leighton Taylor, director of the Waikiki Aquarium from 1975 to 1985, said, "We're really concerned that that place is going under."

Bruce Carlson, who was in charge of the aquarium from 1985 to 2002, described the situation there as "a sad state of affairs."

Current Waikiki Aquarium Executive Director Andy Rossiter, who's headed the aquarium since 2004, responded to their criticisms.

"All of our staff here are fully committed to the health and well being of the animals. Will it go under? Not if I can help it," Rossiter told Hawaii News Now Tuesday.

About six weeks ago, two of the aquarium's giant clams -- one of them the oldest in captivity for 33 years -- died mysteriously just days apart. Only one giant clam remains alive there.

Rossiter said an independent lab found no parasites or toxins and could not determine why the clams died.

"Nothing else in the tank was affected, so it presumably wasn't water quality either," Rossiter said. "So the corals in the tank are fine, the fish are fine. It was just those two clams. Bizarre."

Carlson, who brought one of the clams that died to the aquarium in 1982 when it was just a half-inch in length, said, "As we predicted, some significant animals have died."

A little more than a year ago, three rare leafy sea dragons from Australia also died at the aquarium. Rossiter said the aquarium was unable to determine why those creatures died, but they are very fragile animals.

Taylor described the aquarium as "kind of neglected, ignored, misled and animals are dying there."

Rossiter said the deaths of those five creatures must be kept in perspective.

"Five animals, three of which are notoriously difficult to keep alive, dying out of a collection of 1,800. Obviously, it's sad, it's unfortunate, but it's not a matter of huge concern, because the staff we have here are very well trained, and animals die. It's a fact of life things die," Rossiter said.

In fact, another giant clam died at the aquarium when Carlson was curator of exhibits back in 1982, Rossiter said.

Carlson and Taylor attribute the recent animal deaths to staff turnover under Rossiter. During his 11 years at the helm, two men filled the animal curator post for about one year each before being fired. The most recent was terminated about four months ago. Otherwise, the aquarium has relied on employees to fill-in as acting curators for most of the last decade.

"Each of them was terminated in relatively short order. That's shocking," Carlson said, noting he fired just one person in 15 years as director. "They've been without a curator more often in the last decade than they've had a curator. And that's a big red flag right away," Carlson said, since the curator is responsible for overseeing the safety of the animals and staff.

A third man who was hired as associate director and education director in 2011 was on the job just six months before being fired, sources said.

Two of the fired employees declined to speak to Hawaii News Now and the third did not reply to an email seeking comment.

"We've made some unfortunate hiring decisions and we've had to act upon them to rectify them," said Rossiter.

Rossiter said personnel rules requiring confidentiality forbid him from going into detail about reasons for the dismissals of employees.

"The acting curators have all been internal people that I would have hoped to have groomed to have taken over the curator role," Rossiter said. But Carlson and Taylor said none of those acting curators has been given the chance to have the job permanently, contributing to instability at the facility.

Carlson said other staffers have been fired or quit because they were unhappy, leaving for other jobs in the UH system or elsewhere.

One top UH administrator familiar with the situation who requested anonymity said Rossiter is a "nice guy" but he's a "disaster as a manager."

But Rossiter claimed two grievances filed against him by union employees alleging a hostile work environment in recent years were not sustained.

The permanent education director's position is vacant, as are nine of 38 positions at the aquarium, Rossiter said. He said because of budget cuts, if he filled those remaining vacancies, the aquarium would "go bankrupt."

The aquarium's student help program is being phased out in a cost cutting move, Rossiter said. The program offers part-time employment and training to UH students. Carlson started work in the program when he was a graduate student, long before he was hired to head the aquarium.

The program had as many as 20 student employees at its height, Rossiter said, but now only about 12 remain and they are not being replaced once they graduate from the university. He said two volunteers are being trained to replace each of the part-time student employees as their terms come to an end. But none of the current student workers are losing their jobs, he said.

He said about 20 percent of the aquarium's $3 million annual budget comes from state taxpayers, while the rest of its operating funds come from admission fees, donations and programs. Even though the aquarium is administratively attached to UH, no tuition money or UH funds are used to fund operations, Rossiter said.

Carlson said he and Taylor have "tried unsuccessfully to get answers to our concerns through direct conversations" with Rossiter. And they also met with other UH officials, including UH President David Lassner, "but to little effect."

The two former directors said they reluctantly contacted Hawaii News Now with their concerns after feeling they were rebuffed by the university.

In 2005, Rossiter and UH officials decided to let the aquarium's national accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums lapse.

Carlson said the UH needs to seek accreditation once again because that would force an objective look at overall operations, from management and finances to animal care, staffing, education programs and research.

"Really the aquarium should have a comprehensive review by an independent, outside organization," Carlson said.

But Rossiter insisted accreditation is more trouble than it's worth and he said UH already conducts inspections to assure animal safety there.

"The main benefit of AZA accreditation is to take care, oversee the health and the well being of the animals and to be quite frank, we have that here in abundance at the university," Rossiter said.

He said AZA accreditation would also cost the aquarium about $124,000 a year in admission fee losses, equal to about three months of electricity bills. Rossiter said that's because people who are members of the Honolulu Zoo Society could have reciprocal free admission to the aquarium, since the zoo would be a sister AZA-accredited organization.

Asked if the public should be concerned about management at the aquarium, Rossiter said, "Absolutely not. They're welcome to come down and check out the aquarium. I respectfully suggest it's looking as good now as it has in its 111-year history."

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