Over the past 21 years, nearly 250,000 students have visited the SEA Lab aquarium in Redondo Beach. The got up close and personal to nearly 1,000 sea creatures and learned about the oceans. At the same time, the aquarium has provided paid internships to thousands of young people.
But the future of the SEA Lab is in jeopardy.
It's become caught in the middle of a development deal over the AES Redondo Beach power plant site, a predicament that has put its current finances in limbo as the aquarium tries to find a long-term solution.
As a result, SEA Lab, which is run by the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, started charging $5 admission for visitors over age 14. And last summer it instituted new hours, closing to the public during the week except for school visits and opening its doors strictly on Saturdays.
But those measures are not enough to cover the SEA Lab’s annual budget of around $600,000, said Wendy Butts, CEO of the L.A. Conservation Corps.
“We’ve scaled back our hours because we just don’t have enough money to operate programming,” Butts said. “We are struggling to pay our bills just to keep the pumps running and the animals alive.”
It takes $5,000 per month just to pay the electricity bill. While there have been improvements to the SEA Lab over the years, it has never had a full-scale renovation.
Southern California Edison (SEC) helped launch the SEA Lab in 1997 with a $5 million contribution, the result of a court settlement involving the former San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. That money lasted for about 10 years. SEC sold the plant to AES in 1998.
Housed on North Harbor Drive in a building owned by AES — across the street from the power plant — the SEA Lab has received a $10,000 monthly contribution from the power generator since 2007.
Now, with the AES Redondo plant set to shut down by the end of 2020 and the site in escrow to be sold to developer Leo Pustilnikov, the SEA Lab is unsure if it will stay at its current location. The site also houses a grow-out aquarium for California Fish and Wildlife’s white sea bass hatchery program as well as classrooms for the nonprofit Waterfront Education.
Pustilnikov has already closed the deal to purchase the portion of the AES property where the SEA Lab is located. He's said he will let the site remain as is for now until a long-term solution is determined and he acquires the main 51-acre site.
With declining contributions from AES and the West Basin Municipal Water District, which shut down its desalination demonstration at the site in 2018, the SEA Lab is desperate for additional funding. It needs about $5,000 to $7,500 per month to maintain its current programs, which includes keeping the aquarium doors open and running its educational classes.
“We are really a victim of circumstance,” said Nico Rusconi, Conservation Corps board member.
The most promising solution yet is a proposal by the city — still in its early stages — to build the SEA Lab a new facility on parkland proposed for half the AES site. But first, the city would need to secure funding.
In the city’s proposal to the California Natural Resources Agency for Prop 68 funds in February, a segment of which are geared toward revitalizing sites of former power plants, city officials expressed a willingness to include an aquarium in the park.
“If they can get that money to build it, we want to be the partner to provide services,” Butts said.
Building a state-of-the-art aquarium is an expensive endeavor as the recent $4 million renovation of the Roundhouse Aquarium in Manhattan Beach has shown.
Maria Madrigal, SEA Lab director for the past 19 years, said aquariums are important because they teach valuable lessons about the oceans.
“With anything, if you don’t understand something then you aren’t going to take care of it,” Madrigal said.
To learn more about the SEA Lab and/or to support its work visit LACorps.org/programs/the-sea-lab.