Senior Andrew Shaw returned to campus on Jan. 6, the first of his Omega roommates to return. One of his roommates, senior Benjamin Shirey, asked Shaw to check on his 25-gallon saltwater aquarium. When he opened the door to Shirey’s room, Shaw was the first person to see that the tank was completely dark, with a thick layer of bacteria growing on the top.
“Immediately, I spotted one of his clownfish floating at the surface, dead, looking like it was decaying,” Shaw said. “And my heart dropped a little bit because I know this is a thing that means a lot to him.”
Shaw saw multiple other dead fish and snails in the tank. Shaw struggled for an hour to figure out what he was going to say to Shirey before calling him. According to the room check document left on Shirey’s dorm room desk, campus safety officers checked his room on Jan. 1, 2021. In that document, they indicated that they took one extension cord from the room, which are prohibited in dorm rooms, according to the Eckerd College Community Standards Policies and Procedures (https://www.eckerd.edu/community-standards/).
Both the living and nonliving things in Shirey’s saltwater tank were of high value. Many of the organisms that were living in the tank were exotic and fairly rare. Species that were once living in Shirey’s tank include clownfish, black neon dottyback, blood shrimp, crocea clam, hellfire torch coral, green duncan coral, zebra turbo snail, pink tube anemone and lettuce slug.
One of the corals that was living in the tank was valued around $495, according to Shirey. He estimates that the entire tank was worth around $3,873.49. The aquarium meant more than the money for Shirey, though.
“I mean, I’m a marine science student,” Shirey said. “I treated it as I get a piece of the ocean in my room that I can look at every day. I strive really hard to build an ecosystem.”
At the end of fall semester, resident advisors told their residents that fish tanks were allowed to stay on campus over break as long as they had an automatic fish feeder, which Shirey had. Shirey also had an auto top off system which kept the water level stable. Despite this preparation, campus safety unplugged the extension cord giving power to the tank, causing the death of many species of fish, snails, corals and other saltwater organisms.
Director of Campus Safety and Security Tonya Womack says that the several emails sent out before winter break specify what objects are not allowed in dorm rooms. The first of these emails was sent on Dec. 4, 2020, which included an explanation of the plain-view room inspections and a PDF file listing all prohibited items. Extension cords are one of those objects that could be confiscated due to their capability of starting fires. According to Electrical Safety Foundation International, around 3,300 house fires are caused by extension cords per year, including an average of 50 people killed per year. Due to these statistics, everything that is plugged in needs to be surge protected, according to Womack.
Womack said she cannot comment on individual cases with students such as Shirey, however she said the policy is clear about having extension cords.
“I’m not taking anything that students don’t know can’t be taken,” Womack said.
Shirey says that he has had this extension cord for some time now with no issues.
“I’ve never had any issues with that cord in the past from anybody, never gotten written up for that cord, never had any issue with it,” Shirey said.
Shirey started building the aquarium about a year ago. While in quarantine during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, working on his tank was his way of keeping mentally healthy. Additionally, Shirey worked at a fish store back home in Orlando, FL, where he would often take fish, corals or other aquarium supplies in lieu of pay.
Shirey has been in contact with Campus Safety since he arrived back on campus on Jan. 7. As of Jan. 25, Womack sent him an email saying a check would be sent to him. Shirey is unsure of the amount of money he will receive at this time.
While Shaw does not feel particularly unsafe on campus, the situation has left him a little uneasy.
“I felt a little let down, like they didn’t seem to be taking [the situation] super seriously,” Shaw said.
Going forward, Womack says that procedures will not change, however communication may be improved.
“Hopefully, moving forward, you know, working with Reslife and Housing to better educate students so when we go do room checks, this isn’t a surprise or a shock to students,” Womack said.