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UT Halts Partnership With Controversial Austin Aquarium

After construction violations from the city's code compliance office last month and a recent guilty plea to animal trafficking charges from one of the owners of the new Austin Aquarium, the University of Texas' Texas Advanced Computing Center has put a potential partnership with the effort to bring an aquarium to North Austin on hold. 

Brothers Vince and Ammon Covino have been embroiled in legal squabbles since opening up aquariums in Portland, Oregon and Boise, Idaho in 2012 and 2011, respectively.

Recently, Ammon Covino and an associate pled guilty to charges of illegally selling marine animals in a trial that will begin next month in Florida.

Faith Singer-Villalobos of the TACC says the partnership with the aquarium was in its preliminary stages, but that the research group has since decided to halt any further cooperation with the planned aquarium near US-183 and Anderson Mill Road.

"We were excited about possibly using our technologies to help teach people about marine life and their environments," Singer-Villalobos told KUT News. "However, in light of the recent charge, and other permit issues, we're putting the discussion with the Austin Aquarium on hold. Our primary interest is in how TACC can make the most impact with the right partnerships and, of course, for the university's mission and reputation."

In February, Ammon Covino was arrested in Boise on one count of conspiracy and four counts of unlawful sale or purchase of marine animals in a Florida court. He and an associate are accused of buying four eagle rays and two lemon sharks without permits and shipping them to the Idaho Aquarium in Boise.

Ammon initially pleaded not guilty to the charges in April, but has since changed his plea to guilty.

The City of Austin Code Compliance Department found code violations at the aquarium, mostly related to possession of animals without proper documentation. Images of the construction process can be seen on the Aquarium's Facebook page

The Oregonian, recently investigated the Portland Aquarium, uncovering a so-called "death-log" that reports up to 200 marine animal deaths from Feb. 18 to May 16.  According to the paper, those deaths are 7 percent higher than the Oregon Coast Aquarium, which resulted in the resignation of two on-site veterinarians who said the animals were "suffering to save money."  Neither of the Covino's aquariums are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a process that covers husbandry and procurement of animals.

In a statement last week, the Austin Aquarium said it was "very concerned about the recent allegations against the Portland Aquarium. The health of our marine animals is taken very seriously at our facility." 

The aquarium is scheduled to open in late November or December and hopes to house more than 2,500 species of birds, reptiles, fish and mammals.

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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