A contentious issue in Vancouver that's attracted protests in recent years has received a partial resolution from the country's federal government.
Yesterday (June 10), Parliament passed a ban on whale and dolphin captivity, declaring that organizations can no longer capture or breed the marine mammals for display in parks like the Vancouver Aquarium.
"This is such an important law because it bans breeding, making sure the whales and dolphins currently kept in tiny tanks in Canada are the last generation to suffer," Melissa Matlow, campaign director for World Animal Protection Canada (WAPC), said in an emailed statement. "We hope other countries will now follow Canada's lead and that travel companies will also realize the declining acceptance for these types of attractions."
Barbara Cartwright, CEO of Humane Canada, similarly said the move could have international implications.
“This legislation heralds a change in how Canadians are thinking,” she told the Globe and Mail. “It’s certainly an exciting time and these bills have important measures that are going to put Canada into a leadership position when it comes to animal-welfare legislation.”
The bill, which then-Liberal senator Wilfred Moore first introduced in 2015, does not say that aquariums that currently hold whales or dolphins in their tanks must release those animals into the wild. Its restrictions will instead facilitate a phase out, wherein cetaceans held in tanks today can remain there but organizations cannot capture or breed animals for future display in captivity.
Not every animal-rights organization received the news with total praise.
A media release issued by the B.C.-based Lifeforce Society emphasizes that the legislation “permits legitimate research and the rescue of animals in distress”.
Lifeforce founder Peter Hamilton is quoted there warning that organizations could use those provisions as loopholes that might allow for the public display of whales and dolphins to continue.
“The aquarium industry knows that cetacean captivity is not supported so they are trying to rebrand it as saving ‘rescued’ cetaceans for ‘conservation’ experiments,” he said. “For decades the wildlife that aquariums and zoos claimed cannot be returned to wild has been a free worldwide animal market.
Hamilton named the Vancouver Aquarium, which has its main facility in Stanley Park, as an organization of particular concern.
“The VA [Vancouver Aquarium] states that they will fight to keep ‘rescues’ at the aquarium for any long-term ‘care’ and experiments until whenever they may find another aquarium,” Hamilton said. “But they do not include more humane options such as sea pens. Sadly, this could include orcas, belugas, False killer whales, porpoises and other dolphin species.”
Independent of the federal legislation passed yesterday, the Vancouver Aquarium has remained under sustained public pressure to end its practice of displaying cetaceans for many years now. In 2014, the Georgia Straight published an in-depth report on marine-mammal captivity that explored concerns for the health of whales and dolphins taken from the wild. Activists subsequently organized protests against the Vancouver Aquarium and the city’s park board began a long debate that ended with the civic body voting to ban cetacean captivity from facilities over which it exerts jurisdiction. A legal battle ensued and continues today.
In January 2018, former Vancouver Aquarium CEO John Nightingale announced the organization intends to stop holding cetaceans at its facility in Stanley Park.
"The ongoing controversy and the discussion in the community had gotten to the point where it's debilitating our ability to get on with our principal mission, which is engaging more people,” Nightingale said.
However, the aquarium said it would retain the right to keep rescued animals that were deemed unfit for release into the wild.
In addition to public pressure, Nightingale’s announcement followed a number of cetacean deaths at the aquarium.
In November 2017, 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 with which the Vancouver Aquarium is associated but 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 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.
The Vancouver Aquarium is one of only two facilities in Canada that still keep whales and dolphins in tanks for public display. The other is Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ontario.