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City's aquarium loses its accreditation

The financially struggling New England Aquarium has lost its accreditation from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, making it apparently the only major aquarium in the country that does not have the blessing of the nonprofit organization that monitors care for animals in exhibits.

Aquarium officials declined to make the report public, but said that the accrediting group's main complaint centered on the aquarium's financial woes and the need for repairs to the 34-year-old waterfront facility. The association's team decided to withhold accreditation after concluding that the aquarium lacked the resources to make the necessary improvements within a year, aquarium officials said. The aquarium is in danger of losing money this year due to declining attendance.

The 212 zoos and aquariums who are members of the association agree to meet higher standards for animal treatment, conservation, and financial stability than those set by the federal government. "It's important to us as a professional organization to meet these standards," said Ellen Hurley, vice president of communications at the New England Aquarium. The report "doesn't specify what repairs need to be made," Hurley said, but she maintained that structural problems are not major.

The loss of accreditation, which happened in March but is only being made public now, is a reversal from just a few years ago when the aquarium launched an ambitious expansion program. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington, a drop in attendance and a volatile stock market forced officials to abandon their $125 million expansion. The financial turmoil led to the retirement of the aquarium's longtime president, Jerry R. Schubel.

The aquarium's attendance is down 14 percent this year from last. Officials noted, however, that last year's attendance was a record, driven by the opening of the IMAX theater. But attendance this year is 10 percent lower than the Aquarium forecast for the year, the result of the war in Iraq and bad weather during the winter vacation seasons, officials say.

"We're hoping [a financial loss for the year] won't happen," said Hurley, who said additional fund-raising and marketing staff were recently hired to increase revenue.

The association's decision to revoke the aquarium's accreditation surprised people familiar with the aquarium's national reputation. Aquarium officials said the association gave them high marks in conservation and animal care in their review.

"It's the weirdest kind of the situation," said Scott Kraus, director of research for the aquarium.

The association reviews its member institutions every five years, sending a team of investigators to evaluate animal care and financial stability and interviewing staff members to target management issues.

"It's part of appearing [to be] a trustworthy organization," said Hillary Walker, spokeswoman for the association. She said she was unaware of any other major aquarium that is not accredited.

The downturn in tourism and the economy forced the association to look more closely at the financial stability of zoos and aquariums, concerned that they might not be able to provide care for the animals' lifetimes.

"This is a difficult financial time for everybody and institutions like ours, in particular," said Marshall Judges, executive vice president for Zoo New England, which runs the Franklin Park and Stone Zoos.

The loss of accreditation will not have any effect on day-to-day operations at the aquarium, but it is bad news for an institution already in a shaky financial sitation, because losing accreditation could mean losing donors.

At Zoo New England, which has had its own financial struggles, officials tell potential donors they are accredited by the association, which Judges concedes may reassure potential public and private supporters that the zoo meets high standards for quality.

Losing accreditation could also make it more difficult for the aquarium to exchange any of its animals with accredited institutions, according to the association's Walker.

The decision should not affect visitor attendance, according to aquarium officials. Zoo and aquarium visitors are typically unaware of an institution's accreditation, according to Richard Farinato, director of captive wildlife protection for the Humane Society of the United States. He said he considers the association's stamp more for professional prestige with peers.

"The accreditation is by no means any kind of legal or binding situtation," Farinato said. "It's nothing more than membership in a club." But he admitted that zoos and aquariums rarely loose their accreditation.

Katherine Lutz can be reached at lutz@globe.com.

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