The Vancouver Aquarium has announced it is expanding its captive-cetacean program and increasing the number of beluga whales it keeps in Stanley Park.
At a news conference today (February 20), aquarium CEO John Nightingale said that as many as five beluga whales that the organization owns but has out on loans to American facilities could return to Vancouver by the spring of 2019.
The announcement follows a string of deaths of animals that were either housed in Stanley Park or associated with the Vancouver Aquarium via breeding loans to other facilities.
Two beluga whales named Aurora and Qila died in Stanley Park in November 2016. Those deaths were only the latest in a string of unfortunate incidents.
In August 2016, a harbour porpoise named Jack passed away.
In July of 2015, a beluga whale whose father is owned by the Vancouver Aquarium died at a SeaWorld facility in San Antonia, Texas. The calf was just three weeks old.
In May 2015, a dolphin named Hana—one of only two dolphins the Vancouver Aquarium held in captivity—passed away shortly after undergoing bowel surgery at the facility in Stanley Park.
Before that, in February 2015, a beluga whale named Nanuq died while on loan to a SeaWorld facility in Orlando, Florida.
At today’s news conference, Nightingale also announced that the aquarium intends to phase out the beluga display that it is now in the process of opening.
“By the end of 2029, the Aquarium intends to discontinue its display of beluga whales,” a media release states.
That date happens to coincide with when the lease the aquarium has with the City of Vancouver is scheduled to expire.
“Over the past three months,” the release continues, “Vancouver Aquarium has conducted a thorough assessment and review of its Canadian Artic exhibit and marine mammal research program, which includes beluga whale studies. While the ongoing investigation of the beluga deaths in late 2016 will continue for several more months, the Aquarium has set a new course for the future of its beluga conservation program.”
At the conference, Nightingale repeatedly alluded to the possibility of foul play in the November 2016 deaths of Aurora and Qila.
“Intentional poisoning has not been ruled out,” he said.
At the same time, Nightingale acknowledged there is no proof of that happening.
“The possibility of poisoning the mammals still needs some more evidence,” he said. “We’ve taken lots of things off the table but there is not a lot of concrete evidence to go on.”
Nightingale said no animal will be placed in the tank where the two beluga whales died until added security features are in place.
Since the November deaths of Aurora and Qila and the May 2015 death of Hana, the aquarium is left with only one dolphin in Stanley Park, named Helen, and one false killer whale, named Chester. However, a July 2014 park board report revealed that in addition to those animals that have died, the Vancouver Aquarium owns five other beluga whales.
Three are believed to be at SeaWorld facilities and two are at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta.
The park board placed a ban on the Vancouver Aquarium capturing wild animals for display purposes in 1996. Since then, any new addition has been classified as a "rescued" animal or was born in captivity.
The Vancouver Aquarium has come under increasing pressure to end its whale and dolphin programs since a 2014 feature article in the Georgia Straight raised concerns about the long-term effects of captivity programs.