The Vancouver Aquarium will appear before the park board at a special meeting scheduled for next Saturday (July 26) at 9 a.m.
Aquarium management will make a presentation on the facility’s work with large marine mammals. In addition, park board staff will deliver a report on best practices for aquariums around the world. Members of the public are also invited to speak. (Advance registration is required.)
Park commissioner Sarah Blyth told the Straight that she’s never seen such a high level of interest in a civic issue.
“We’ve had thousands of emails, sometimes more than a thousand emails a day,” she said. “We envision that this will be a very long meeting.”
Blyth revealed that a “noticeable majority” of those emails take positions against whale and dolphin captivity.
The park board’s hearing on the aquarium comes ahead of a contract review scheduled for 2015.
A review of the aquarium’s work with cetaceans was requested by park board chair Aaron Jasper on April 9, 2014. The same day, Mayor Gregor Robertson called for an end to whale and dolphin captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium. Several park commissioners have publicly voiced the same opinion.
The aquarium currently holds two beluga whales and two Pacific white-sided dolphins in its tanks in Stanley Park. In recent months, activists have intensified calls for a phase out of those exhibits and a prohibition on any more large marine mammals being brought into Stanley Park.
In a telephone interview, aquarium CEO John Nightingale told the Straight that upon the completion of an ongoing expansion, three additional belugas currently on loan to Sea World facilities in the United States could be brought back to Vancouver. He said the aquarium could also house more dolphins if, in the future, dolphins are found to require rescue and subsequently are deemed unsuitable for release back into the wild.
Nightingale noted that the aquarium can survive financially without cetacean exhibits. However, he claimed that research, conservation, and educational efforts will suffer if the facility is forced to give up its whales and dolphins.
“With cetaceans gone, with an inability to directly engage people and for them to see the real thing, and with an inability to do any of that research, the aquarium will be a vastly diminished place,” he said.
One of the submissions to be discussed through the park board’s review is a bylaw change drafted by the B.C. SPCA.
The B.C. SPCA’s chief scientific officer, Sara Dubois, described its proposal as a “sunset bylaw”. She explained it would provide for whales and dolphins currently housed at the aquarium to remain there while prohibiting both breeding and the importation of additional cetaceans from other facilities. (The bylaw also leaves room for rescued animals to be kept at the aquarium, provided they are deemed unreleasable by Fisheries and Oceans Canada and approved for permanent housing by the park board.)
“Moving the animals out of the aquarium right now doesn’t make sense,” Dubois said. “They do provide excellent care for them—that’s not the concern at all. The concern is new animals.”