Austin Aquarium owners on trial for alleged conspiracy, obstructing justice following lemon shark controversy

Amanda Voeller

Last month, the University ceased its preliminary discussions with the Austin Aquarium about a possible partnership because of a controversy involving the alleged mistreatment of animals.

Austin Aquarium co-owner Ammon Covino was indicted in February for three counts of illegal purchase of wildlife, including three spotted eagle rays and two lemon sharks. According to court documents, his nephew Peter Covino IV is being tried for and obstruction of justice for supposedly erasing evidence of the purchases at his uncle’s request. Peter Covino’s sentencing is scheduled for Thursday, and Ammon Covino’s next trial date is Monday.

Faith Singer-Villalobos, Texas Advanced Computing Center communications coordinator, said the University stopped considering working with the aquarium when the University found out in the news about the allegations against Ammon Covino.

Biology senior Nana-Ama Anang said she was initially excited about the aquarium coming to Austin, but after learning about the owners’ backgrounds, she disapproves of the aquarium’s management.

“I believe they are irresponsible and do not care for the well-being of the animals,” Anang said. “The fact that Ammon Covino was arrested for obtaining animals illegally shows that the brothers have no respect for marine animals … Unless different, more experienced, trusted and responsible management takes over, I do not support it.”

Wayne Hall, biology senior and Marine Science Institute research assistant, said although aquariums are important for education, he is unsure about the Austin Aquarium’s owners’ credibility.

“Aquariums are great for educational purposes and intriguing the public about marine and freshwater habitats and organisms and the jeopardy they face,” Hall said. “The Covino brothers may be trying to educate the public, but they need to follow ethical guidelines when it comes to obtaining and managing their aquarium.”

Ammon and Vince Covino also own an aquarium in Portland, Ore. The Oregon Humane Society is investigating that aquarium because of allegations from former employees that the owners failed to provide adequate animal care.

Co-owner Vince Covino said the former employees’ allegations that the Portland Aquarium mistreated animals were untrue.

“It was just all erroneous,” Vince Covino said. “I don’t know where they came up with that information.”

Former Portland Aquarium employees did not return requests for comment.

David Lytle, Oregon Humane Society public affairs manager, said representatives of the society cannot discuss the investigation because disclosing details may compromise their findings. He said if the investigators do find enough evidence to issue a citation to Ammon Covino or any of his family members, the person cited would be barred from owning animals in Oregon for five years.

Lisa Aitala, an Austin resident boycotting the Austin Aquarium, said she believes the Covinos should not open a local aquarium.

“If there’s going to be an aquarium, it needs to be done by UT, Texas A&M, Dell, Baylor — somebody like that, somebody who’s qualified,” Aitala said. 

The owners won’t be able to open the aquarium until the city of Austin reviews the building plan and issues a certificate of occupancy. The Austin Aquarium was scheduled to open in November.