VANCOUVER — There will be no new whales, dolphins or porpoises kept at the Vancouver Aquarium in the future if the city’s park board approves changes to its cetaceans bylaw on Monday.
It’s a move the aquarium says would hinder their marine mammal rescue efforts and muddle an expansion plan that is already underway.
The debate over whether the aquarium should house cetaceans was sparked after two belugas died suddenly last fall due to an unidentified toxin.
“It was a time for us to reflect what to do moving forward,” said Michael Wiebe, park board chair.
In March, the park board directed staff to amend the current bylaw to ban the importation and display of live cetaceans in the city’s parks.
The existing bylaw already limits how the aquarium can acquire cetaceans, preventing healthy animals in the wild from being captured. Animals that are injured or in need of rehabilitation are the exception, and were not required to be released back into the wild after treatment.
The amendments, however, would prevent any new cetaceans including rescues from being held at the aquarium.
Three cetaceans currently housed at the aquarium would be given an exception and be allowed to stay. The animals could still be kept on display, but an amendment would prevent the use of the animals in shows or performances.
The Vancouver Aquarium president said the ban would prevent the future rescue of whales and dolphins, and injured or distressed cetaceans could be euthanized.
“If you can’t provide a long-term home for them someplace then likely they can’t be rescued,” John Nightingale said.
The loss of cetaceans at the aquarium would also hurt Canadian researchers who rely on the facility, and will otherwise have to look south of the border to do work with whales and dolphins in captivity, he said.
The aquarium already announced in February that it would phase out its cetacean program by 2029. But it intended on bringing in five more belugas in the interim once it opened a new Canada’s Arctic exhibit currently being developed.
Nightingale questions the board’s timing on the proposed ban to speed up the deadline voluntarily set by the aquarium.
“Is there something we’re doing when we keep them in our care that is absolutely antithetical to their needs and the way they’ve evolved and as far as we can tell from behaviour and medical testing, the answer is no,” he said.
But Wiebe said the board has listened to the aquarium, other marine scientists and the public, and sees no reason to delay the inevitable.
He said the marine mammal rescue program is not at risk with the ban nor is research being hindered. Tanks for the new exhibit were also designed to be adaptable for other animals, so they could be used once the whale program was phased out.
The aquarium hasn’t rescued a single cetacean in two years, Wiebe said, and other animals more commonly rescued will not be effected by the bylaw.
He added that scientists have reported cetaceans are best treated for injuries in their natural habitat, a practice the aquarium already carries out for orcas.
The data captured from cetaceans in aquariums isn’t necessary any more either, Wiebe said, and partnerships can otherwise be made at American facilities.
Still, Wiebe said he understands that the aquarium is trying to protect their current operations from politicians and that the issue is very emotional for people on all sides.
“It’s been a really tough experience for us because it’s not a black and white subject,” he said. “If it was outside the park board land we wouldn’t be dealing with it.”
But after looking at more than 20,000 emails, holding public consultations and meeting with experts, Wiebe said he believes commissioners will allow the amendment to go ahead.
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