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Picton aquarium refuses to close as owner disputes lease expiry

The owner of Picton's EcoWorld is refusing to leave the premises amid a fierce dispute over its lease expiry.

EcoWorld manager Janelle White gives a tour of the aquarium ahead of its closure. Source: Seven Sharp

As of midnight last night the Aquarium & Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre was due to close after the owner of the land, Port Marlborough, decided not to renew the lease.

Business owner John Reuhman told 1 NEWS proceedings were launched in the High Court a week ago over the renewal of the lease, saying a new one was accepted in April this year that runs until 2031.

EcoWorld has been operating for more than 20 years and currently has five staff and a range of animals, including a 160-year-old Cook Strait tuatara.

Reuhman says he will camp out at the premises if needed in order to protect the land and sea life currently supported there. He says he camped at the premises last night over fears he and the animals and sea life inside would be evicted and the locks potentially changed.

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There are concerns for what will happen to the fish housed there. Source: Seven Sharp

"We have four staff here and as much as anything, we are tending to those animals," he said. 

Reuhman says he's spent $50,000 in legal fees so far to fight to keep the place open, having hired a QC and barrister to act for him.

He says he's written a 12-page affidavit and has 127 pages of evidence "to prove we have a lease".

"We want the court to decide we've got a lease," adding he had made an offer to Port Marlborough and it was accepted. 

He says the Port is employing "some of the best lawyers in the country to act against him".

"There's a bit of a stand-off here," Reuhman said.

Port Marlborough responds

Port Marlborough responded to the stoush by issuing a statement saying "the lease was entered into in January 2011 and was for a 10 year period, with no right of renewal.

"The terms of the lease also oblige Ecoworld to remove any improvements to the land and reinstate that land at its expense.

"The lease is simply ending on the agreed terms. Mr Reuhman is alleging that Port Marlborough agreed to renew the lease or to a new one. That is not the case. While there were discussions some time ago regarding a possible extension, the terms repeatedly sought by Mr Reuhman were unacceptable and fundamentally different to his existing lease. Port Marlborough could not reasonably agree to them," the statement said. 

"For more than three months Port Marlborough has made repeated offers to assist Ecoworld despite its strict lease terms. First and foremost, and despite Ecoworld’s consistent media statements and interviews, Port Marlborough’s focus has been on the welfare of the marine-life and animals and offering to assist Ecoworld with all rehoming over such reasonable time as Ecoworld needs to do this.

"Port Marlborough has repeatedly offered to pay for the reasonable costs associated with rehoming the marine-life and animals.

"Secondly, and before Mr Reuhman went to the media, Port Marlborough had offered to relieve Ecoworld of its removal and reinstatement obligations and offered what Port Marlborough thought was a very generous cash offer. Regrettably, Mr Reuhman has publicly mischaracterised these offers, including calling this payment a bribe.

The port said they were "disappointed and concerned" by the statements Reuhman was making.

"We believe we have acted outside the terms of the lease in a very generous way, consistent with Port Marlborough’s values and with sensitivity to Ecoworld’s lease expiry."

The statement went on to say Port Marlborough did not intend to occupy the premises today if EcoWorld remains at the property but would instead seek assistance from the courts to "secure possession of its land back".

"Port Marlborough wishes to deal with these issues as sensitively as possible, including because of the paramount importance of the welfare of the marine-life and animals."

The Port says it will defend the proceedings and is looking forward to consulting with our community and mana whenua to work through the options for transforming this site, in order to deliver better cultural, environmental and economic benefits for the region as a whole

Reuhman has also launched a petition on Change.org to save the aquarium and the 117 native animals he says will have to be euthanised if the closure is forced.

EcoWorld has five staff, including Reuhman who says the business "is his life".