A $1.1 million aquarium, built to showcase the underwater treasures of Ningaloo Reef, is standing empty of fish and water in Exmouth because of fears it is not safe to hold marine life.
The aquarium is part of the $32 million international tourism and research hub, the Ningaloo Centre, the development of which led to a corruption watchdog investigation and the suspension of the Shire of Exmouth council.
Commissioner Ian Fletcher, the former chief executive of the City of Kalgoorlie-Boulder who has been put in charge of the failing council for six months, said he was working to “get things back on track”.
“It’s too early to say it’s not safe to have fish in, but we haven’t filled it with water,” he told the ABC yesterday. “Certainly we haven’t put any species or coral in the aquarium.”
Exotic fish, coral and marine life species are planned to be harvested from Ningaloo Reef, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, to fill the aquarium.
“We have to get special permission,” Mr Fletcher said.
“There’s a licence issue. The builder of the aquarium was going to do that. I’m not prepared to have fish go into that tank when we haven’t got adequate indication that it makes sense to do it.”
Mr Fletcher said the Corruption and Crime Commission inquiry also led to the sacking of former chief executive Bill Price and an officer working on the project.
“The issue with the centre is that, as was made clear in the public hearings of the CCC, there were inappropriate procurement mechanisms taken in some areas including the aquarium. There was another quote which was never considered,” he said.
Mr Price was accused of awarding a $1.1 million contract to build the centre’s aquarium without proper authorisation from council or calling for tenders.
Mr Fletcher said the current issues with the aquarium stemmed from the fact the Ningaloo Centre was originally planned to built on the canal in Exmouth.
“It’s not now on the canal. There was a land swap. So basically a tanker was going to be purchased to the tune of $60,000 and it was going to provide sea water once or twice a week to this aquarium,” he said.
“Alec Coles, the director of WA Museum, I sought his advice and he asked the question, ‘well where’s the ocean inflow and outflow?’ There is none. So that’s the first question I have, is it safe to have a tanker providing new seawater once or twice a week?
“The other issue is there was no comprehensive staffing plan. There’s no business plan for the occupation of the Ningaloo Centre and this tanker has to be maintained.”
Mr Fletcher said it was planned for the shire’s swimming pool manager to have the task of cleaning the aquarium, by entering the tanks in a wetsuit, on top of his everyday duties.
“It wasn’t properly conceived. We’ve now got a plan where we’ve got eight staff,” he said.
He said he was enlisting the help of a marine life expert and the manager of the National Anzac Centre in Albany to progress the opening of the aquarium.
Mr Fletcher has said earlier the Ningaloo Centre was not expected to open now until May or June, with the delay costing the shire $66,200.