B.C. Court of Appeal finds city has authority to ban cetacean captivity, sending Vancouver Aquarium back to court

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      Vancouver is one step closer to banning whales and dolphins from tanks in Stanley Park.

      Today (February 19), a three-judge B.C. Court of Appeal panel ruled the city’s park board does indeed have the authority to tell the Vancouver Aquarium that it is no longer allowed to keep cetaceans on display.

      “The park board is pleased by today’s decision,” board chair Stuart Mackinnon said in a media release. “The amendment to our bylaw is thoughtful and reflective of public opinion. The court’s decision upholds our legislative powers to regulate activities and operations within our parks.”

      The judgment concerns a bylaw amendment that the Vancouver park board passed in May 2017. The amendment says that the Vancouver Aquarium must phase out whale and dolphin displays. It allows animals currently housed there to remain in Stanley Park but forbids the nonprofit organization from adding any new cetaceans to its tanks.

      The Vancouver Aquarium challenged the bylaw in court, arguing a previous contract with the park board means the city lacks the authority to interfere in day-to-day operations. In February 2018, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled in the aquarium’s favour.

      The park board appealed, and now B.C. Court of Appeal has overturned the B.C. Supreme Court’s earlier judgment.

      In a statement, the Vancouver Aquarium (named in court documents as Ocean Wise Conservation Association) only said that it was reviewing the judge’s decision.

      “We will need to take the time necessary to review the judgment with our legal counsel and consider the implications it may have on our organization before determining our future course of action or making any further public statements about these matters,” it reads.

      The Vancouver Aquarium is located inside Stanley Park, a large parcel of land owned by the Government of Canada and leased to the City of Vancouver. The aquarium operates there under an agreement that currently runs through to 2029. These contracts give Vancouver’s park board authority over Stanley Park and organizations doing business there.

      In 1996, the Vancouver Aquarium announced it would no longer capture animals from the wild. The organization however continued to place on display cetaceans that were deemed in need of “rescue”.

      Cetacean captivity became an issue of controversy in Vancouver after the Georgia Straight published a feature-length article on the topic in February 2014. Since then, protests targeting the aquarium have occurred outside the facility’s main gates and successive park boards have debated banning whale and dolphin captivity on park board lands.

      More recently, calls for an end to cetacean captivity intensified after a number of whales and dolphins died while in the custody of the Vancouver Aquarium.

      In November 2017, a young false killer whale named Chester passed away. It was the fifth cetacean to die in tanks in Stanley Park in less than three years.

      Two beluga whales named Aurora and Qila passed away in November 2016.

      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 associated the Vancouver Aquarium but not kept in Stanley Park also 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 Antonio, 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.

      In January 2018, then aquarium CEO John Nightingale announced the organization was phasing out whale and dolphin displays.

      "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 on the organization’s website. "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."

      The aquarium's legal battle with the park board nevertheless continued.

      Today’s B.C. Court of Appeal decision was cheered by animal-rights activists who have long opposed the Vancouver Aquarium’s practice of keeping whales and dolphins on display.

      However, the court’s decision does not put the matter to rest. The B.C. Court of Appeal found the park board’s contract with the aquarium does not weaken its authority to pass bylaws that affect the aquarium’s operations. But there were other grounds on which the Vancouver Aquarium challenged the park board’s bylaw banning cetacean captivity.

      The case is now on its way back to the B.C. Supreme Court.