Following a vote by the park board on July 31 to effectively end whale and dolphin breeding at the Vancouver Aquarium, president and CEO John Nightingale has denied that the nonprofit was engaged in such activities to begin with.
“The park board’s use of the word breeding implies that we carry out some sort of planned, regulated or artificial reproduction program,” he wrote in an August 1 open letter. “We don’t do that at the Vancouver Aquarium.”
While this may be an accurate statement, records obtained by the Straight, combined with interviews with park commissioners, reveal that the aquarium has participated in organized breeding at locations beyond its walls in Stanley Park.
It assisted a U.S. facility with an application for a permit to import 18 beluga whales previously captured from the wild off the coast of Russia, that document shows. And according to U.S. court filings, those efforts were for the explicit purpose of expanding a cross-continent breeding program run by aquariums.
The application for the Russian whales was filed by the Georgia Aquarium with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 2012. An addendum states that the Vancouver Aquarium participated in a meeting convened to discuss how best to integrate wild-caught whales into a breeding pool shared by some North American aquariums.
“The Georgia Aquarium, and other North American beluga whale holders, will be managing the North American collection of beluga whales in order to optimize social integration and to take advantage of appropriate breeding opportunities,” the document reads. “Toward that end, veterinary and animal care staff from the Georgia Aquarium, Vancouver Aquarium, SeaWorld, Mystic Aquarium, and Shedd Aquarium met on August 6, 2012 to further consider the best social groupings for the whales subject to the permit application and how to best integrate these whales into the existing collections.”
The addendum goes on to note that at the meeting, it was decided that three of the 18 wild-caught whales would be held at the Georgia Aquarium, where two belugas owned by the Vancouver Aquarium currently reside. Another eight were marked for SeaWorld facilities in the U.S. The Vancouver Aquarium owns five beluga whales presently held at SeaWorld parks.
According to a July 23 report commissioned by the park board, the Vancouver Aquarium’s breeding-loan agreements specify that “every other offspring will go to each of the facilities involved.”
Jeffrey Matthews, Vancouver chapter coordinator for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, told the Straight he views the aquarium’s participation in such arrangements as a loophole in its 1996 pledge to never again procure whales or dolphins caught in the wild.
“While the Vancouver Aquarium is not directly obtaining cetaceans from the wild…it is actively supporting others to do so by participating in this North American breeding pool,” he said in a phone interview. “This means they will capitalize on these captures for their own benefit.”
NOAA denied the Georgia Aquarium’s application in August 2013.
According to a NOAA Fisheries application overview, it was found that allowing the Georgia Aquarium to import the whales in question for the purpose of public display “would contribute to the demand to capture belugas…resulting in the future taking of additional belugas from this stock”. NOAA also found that five of the 18 whales were “approximately 1.5 years old at the time of capture, were potentially still nursing and not yet independent”.
The Georgia Aquarium subsequently launched a lawsuit against NOAA to have the denial of its permit overturned. In that complaint filed in September 2013 in a U.S. district court, the Georgia Aquarium states that the wild-caught animals are needed for breeding.
“One purpose of the proposed import is to increase the breeding population of beluga whales held at accredited North American public display facilities such that no further permits for importation or collection will be sought by such facilities in the foreseeable future,” it states.
The case remains before the courts. The Vancouver Aquarium’s role in the process today is unknown. The aquarium declined to grant an interview.
Park board chair Aaron Jasper told the Straight that the aquarium’s breeding arrangements with the Georgia Aquarium and other U.S. facilities were a key factor in the park board’s vote to ban captive mating in Vancouver.
“They say that they will not breed any of their whales directly with a wild-caught whale,” he said. “But what about a grandchild [of a Vancouver whale] with a grandchild [of a wild-caught whale]? Who’s going to track that?”
Jasper noted that before examining the park-board report on the aquarium that was made public on July 23, commissioners were under the impression that the aquarium owned five beluga whales when, in fact, it owns nine.
“Then through our questioning, we learned that of the nine that they own, four are offspring from mating Vancouver Aquarium whales with other whales,” Jasper continued. “And then in addition to that, we discovered that there are another five young beluga whales owned by other aquariums that are the direct result of breeding involving our belugas.”
He called attention to one Vancouver beluga, Nanuq, that the aquarium has transferred via airplane to four different facilities, each time for the purpose of breeding.
Jasper recalled that while he was questioning Nightingale on the matter, it appeared the CEO could barely keep track of the whales the aquarium now has spread out across North America.
“I was asking, ‘Who is related to who? And whose is that one? How old is that one?’ ” Jasper recounted. “They couldn’t even really tell me.”
Speaking during the July 31 park-board meeting, commissioner Sarah Blyth said it’s troubling that the majority of the aquarium’s belugas are housed outside of Vancouver.
“I think that people have questions about that and how we fit into an international breeding program,” she said. “Do we want to be a part of this?”
Interviewed alongside Jasper after the vote, commissioner Niki Sharma conceded that the ban on whale and dolphin breeding won’t apply to animals the aquarium has loaned to U.S. facilities. But she revealed that the park board hopes to bring those animals under a degree of public supervision. To that end, Sharma continued, the park board has resolved to create an “oversight committee”.
“We’ve directed it to be a line of oversight consisting of animal-welfare experts that will be able to take a look at all of the cetaceans that are owned by the aquarium and report to the public to provide that level of transparency and openness,” she said.
Jasper interjected: “We still want to shed some light on that,” he said.