The question of whale and dolphin captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium will be put to a public vote, if the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE) has its way.
On March 30, COPE members adopted a policy in favour of a referendum on the issue. They propose that civic elections scheduled for November 2014 include a question on the ballot asking if people support phasing out whale and dolphin exhibits at the aquarium in Stanley Park.
The policy was drafted by Anita Romaniuk, chair of the COPE parks committee and a former Vancouver park board commissioner.
In a telephone interview, she told the Straight that the city’s agreement with the aquarium is up for review in 2015, and so a November vote would help the park board make informed decisions during those negotiations. Holding a vote this year also makes sense because, Romaniuk continued, it's her understanding that opinions on the park board are increasingly against captivity, indicating that it's time the issue comes up for debate.
“We have tried in the past, at least three times, to have a referendum put forward,” she said. “But due to other people on council or on the park board, that has never happened....So this is about giving people a say on the matter.”
Desite repeated requests, the aquarium has refused to confirm to the Straight whether or not it plans to increase the number of whales and dolphins it keeps on display.
The COPE policy proposal states that a “substantive number” of Vancouver residents oppose keeping cetaceans in captivity while the aquarium maintains that it has a majority of people’s support.
“If the Aquarium is correct and the voters prefer that the exhibits continue, the current conditions will remain until 2027,” it reads. “If those who consider keeping whales and dolphins in captivity to be cruel and exploitive are correct and people vote to phase out the cetacean exhibits, the Aquarium will be advised to phase these out by the end of its lease in 2027.”
In accordance with the Vancouver Charter, a majority of city council must approve a question proposed for a plebiscite or referendum before it can appear on a ballot.
Councillors with Vision Vancouver and the Non-Partisan Association did not return requests for interviews by deadline.
In a telephone interview, Green councillor Adriane Carr told the Straight that “it’s about time” the public was given a say on whales and dolphins at the aquarium.
“The science is clear; whales and cetaceans are thinking beings,” she said. “It’s beyond me to understand any rationale why they should be in captivity.”
Carr described the issue as “really snowballing right now”. She called attention to an online petition pertaining to a public vote on the Vancouver Aquarium that has received more than 10,000 signatures.
In a March 11 interview, aquarium president John Nightingale told the Straight that in his opinion, there is nothing to debate.
“Nothing has changed since the park board last dealt with it,” he said. “They have an upcoming review in 2015 that we’ll certainly participate in.”
Romaniuk noted that the aquarium has long maintained that there is no need for a vote on marine mammal captivity. “They do not want a public referendum, which probably tells you something,” she said. “They’re not quite as sure about their support as they claim to be.”