Steve Huxter: Surely the Vancouver Aquarium can imagine a future without whales in captivity
With the prospect of a Vancouver park board that is feeling unencumbered by commissioners’ need to keep their seat at the table, and with the real possibility of changes to existing bylaws governing the keeping of whales and dolphins in captivity, John Nightingale, the Vancouver Aquarium’s president and CEO, is playing the sympathy card and claiming that Vancouver’s much-loved aquarium will die without whales and dolphins in its tanks.
Nightingale argued, as paraphrased in a Vancouver Sun story published June 12, that “changes to a bylaw governing the keeping of whales, could seriously damage the aquarium’s reputation as a world leader in marine research”.
Most certainly, it’s an alarmist statement by Nightingale and designed to rally support. In reality, Vancouver is a relatively small participant in the world of dolphin and beluga research. A more likely motivation for his worry is the lost effort that has been spent on planning the new exhibit if the aquarium must redesign their business model to suit a facility without whales and dolphins in captivity.
In contrast, John Racanelli, CEO of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, talking about his aquarium’s recent decision to voluntarily evaluate retiring their eight dolphins to a sea-pen sanctuary, told the Baltimore Sun: “We know so much more today about the animals and about our evolving audience — and frankly how urgent the need has become to protect the health of oceans and the Chesapeake Bay. As a conservation organization first and foremost, we have to evolve.”
Not unlike the Vancouver Aquarium, Baltimore’s National Aquarium describes itself as a “nonprofit aquatic education and conservation organization whose mission is to inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures”.
Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and bio-psychologist with Emory University and a research associate with the Smithsonian Institution, has been studying dolphins and whales for 20 years and said of the National Aquarium: “Simply asking whether dolphins should be kept in captivity makes the National Aquarium more progressive than other aquatic attractions. They should be applauded. Other places make justification for why [dolphins] are in captivity, and they are asking the question: Should they be?”
Questioning the ethics of holding cetaceans in captivity is worldwide in scope. Sixteen countries in the world have either banned the holding of whales or dolphins in captivity or have set standards of care that make it impossible to establish and maintain a facility.
Richard Branson and Virgin Holidays recently hosted a group of stakeholders and animal welfare advocates to discuss the ethics of promoting vacation destinations that offer encounters with dolphins or whales in captivity.
While Canada has only two facilities that hold whales and dolphins in captivity, the refusal to change by those facilities places us in the company of countries such as Russia, China, Japan, Mexico, and the United States. However, this week, the U.S. Congress adopted an amendment that forces the Department of Agriculture to review its regulations regarding cetaceans in captivity, devoting US$1 million specifically to examining the issue of holding killer whales in captivity.
We are falling behind, and as a well accredited and widely respected organization, it’s time that the Vancouver Aquarium put aside its intransigence. With public opinion changing so quickly, what will the aquarium do if, in another 10 years, visitors stop making their way through the front gate, because they have whales and dolphins in captivity?
Surely, a world-renowned aquarium that has so much going for it, and with such strong support from its community, can reimagine itself to fit an evolved world.