Last Thursday (January 18), Vancouver Aquarium CEO John Nightingale announced that the nonprofit organization would no longer keep cetaceans in tanks in Stanley Park.
“The ongoing discussions about whales and dolphins in our care have been a distraction from real threats to the ocean and have sidelined the critical work we lead," he wrote in an aquarium blog post. "We aim to inspire people in every corner of the planet to participate in creating healthy oceans, and it’s time to get on with it."
It’s true, in recent years, the public’s mood has increasingly turned against keeping intelligent animals in captivity. And the Vancouver aquarium has felt the impacts of swings in that debate. But there’s another reason that might have contributed to the decision that Nightingale announced last week.
According to a CBC News report based by on court documents filed in a case against the Vancouver park board, the Vancouver Aquarium’s bottom line took a beating through 2017.
Public attendance dropped nine percent between December 1, 2016, and May 31, 2017, CBC’s Jason Proctor reports. During the same period, members attendance declined 17 percent and membership renewals declined 22 percent.
Toys modelled after whales that are sold in the aquarium’s gift shop began to collect dust on their shelves. Their sales fell 33.6 percent during the six-month period discussed.
The documents were filed in relation to a jurisdictional spat between the aquarium and the Vancouver park board that began in May 2017. That month, the parks commissioners voted to phase out cetacean captivity at the aquarium, which is located on land controlled by the board. The bylaw amendment forbade the organization from bringing any additional whales and dolphins to Stanley Park. Shortly after, the aquarium said it was filing for a judicial review of that decision.
The matter remains before the courts.
The aquarium began coming under increasing pressure to end its whale and dolphin programs after the publication of a 2014 feature article in the Georgia Straight raised concerns about the long-term effects of captivity.
The January 18 announcement that it would finally stop displaying whales and dolphins in tanks in Stanley Park followed a string of animal deaths.
Last November, a young false killer whale named Chester died. It was the fifth cetacean to die in tanks in Stanley Park in less than three years.
In August 2016, a harbour porpoise named Jack died.
In May 2015, a dolphin named Hana died shortly after undergoing bowel surgery.
In addition, other marine mammals that the Vancouver Aquarium is associated with but which it does not keep in Stanley Park died during the same period.
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. Before that, in February 2015, a beluga whale named Nanuq died while on loan to a SeaWorld facility in Orlando, Florida.
Today aquarium is left with only one cetacean: a Pacific white-sided dolphin named Helen.
However, a July 2014 park board report revealed that in addition to those animals that have died during the past three years, the Vancouver Aquarium owns five other beluga whales.
Three are believed to be at SeaWorld facilities in the United States and two are at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta.
The January 18 announcement did not mention those animals.