As popular and successful as North Carolina’s three Aquariums are, they’re not immune to the economic stresses currently weighing on the State. As an agency of North Carolina’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources, the Aquariums’ budgets have been reduced by more than 25% over the last two years, and further budget trimming is likely. The NC General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division is currently studying the Aquariums and all state attractions, with an eye toward consolidation of operations, further funding and staffing reductions, and other possible efficiencies.
Around the nation, many other publicly-funded zoos and aquariums have faced the same budget scrutiny. As lawmakers weigh priorities, zoos and aquariums must compete with critical public needs in education, health services, transportation, law enforcement, and the like. In recent years, many aquariums and zoos have elected to privatize, or shift management authority to their private non-profit support groups. This shift can be a beneficial alternative, allowing the zoo or aquarium to operate more efficiently and avoid an undesirable decline in the quality of its facilities and programs.
The Aquariums are currently studying just such a shift in governance. Along with the NC Zoo, the Aquariums may be candidates for this change. There are various models for how this might be done, but the change is really focused on governance and operation-the State would still retain ownership of the facilities. Investigations include a close look at other facilities that have recently shifted to non-profit management, including zoos in Houston, Dallas, and Tulsa, and the Seattle Aquarium.
If it’s determined a shift in governance would be beneficial to the Aquariums, the next steps would include discussion with the Governor’s Office and lawmakers. No plans for this shift are currently in place, no time schedule has emerged, and any change in operation for the Aquariums must be approved by the General Assembly. Stay tuned to the Aquarium website for updates as this important issue unfolds.