The Exploris aquarium is for “anoraks” and should either be moved or shut down to save money, according to one MLA.
With a decision to be made next Wednesday on the future of the council-run centre in Portaferry, David McNarry said it was full of “dull fish” and added he had called for it to close a decade ago.
The Ukip MLA for Strangford said the idea of the aquarium was good in principle, and it could make sense to move it to somewhere else to boost its ailing fortunes.
The facility — which is the only one if its kind in Ulster — takes in about £400,000 per year, but has running costs of roughly £1m – leading to a net loss of roughly £600,000.
It is understood to have been running at a loss for some time – possibly since it opened.
“Exploris is a fancy plaything for anoraks,” said Mr McNarry. “Once seen is usually enough. It’s in the back end of nowhere, and when a councillor I called for its closure over 10 years ago...
“It’s a constant drain on ratepayers, who, in my opinion, will agree with me.”
At the time he had been sent on a four-day trip to Monaco, where he learned about how aquariums elsewhere are run.
He said part of the problem is that Exploris simply does not stack up against other centres in terms of the species on show.
“Exploris concentrates on dull fish, which were caught in and around Strangford Lough and the Irish Sea,” he said, adding that other aquariums have angel fish, sharks and giant octopi to wow the crowds.
But while it is floundering in its current location he suggested it could well be shifted to somewhere like the Titanic Quarter or Castle Espie.
One of those defending keeping it open was Alliance MLA Kieran McCarthy.
He said the Stormont executive should have got involved with some help, particularly the Department of Enterprise Trade and Investment, responsible for tourism.
In a statement DETI said: “Exploris has received financial assistance from Northern Ireland Tourist Board for various projects in the past, the most recent being 2010.”
It has a “Tourism Development Scheme”, it said, which helps develop visitor attractions – although does not fund running costs. It added this is not open for applications now.
It concluded: “The tourism minister is always happy to meet with local businesses to discuss issues and strategies for future developments, when her diary permits, however Exploris has made no request to meet the minister.”
As well as its fish, the centre also has a seal sanctuary.
It employs 18 staff. It first opened in 1987, and was later rebranded Exploris.