The dispute over captive whales and dolphins has left Vancouver’s ruling party all wet, critics suggest.
Following a Georgia Straight feature last February about the ongoing expansion of the Vancouver Aquarium in Stanley Park, debate around keeping marine mammals in tanks has been reignited.
Mayor Gregor Robertson and a majority of his Vision Vancouver colleagues at the park board have waded into the issue. However, former park chair Anita Romaniuk finds Vision’s response somewhat laughable.
“They’re trying to play it both sides,” Romaniuk said in an April 11 interview.
At a Main Street café, the long-time Coalition of Progressive Electors member questioned why Robertson wouldn’t back a public vote on the issue, although he says he favours phasing out whale and dolphin displays.
“They’re trying to come down in the middle and be kind of in the mushy middle, where they’re not really on one side or the other,” Romaniuk said.
And she is perplexed as to why outgoing Vision park commissioners Constance Barnes and Sarah Blyth are now voicing concerns about the controversy. In the board term prior to 2011’s municipal election, Barnes and Blyth were among the Vision trustees who voted down a Green Party of Vancouver motion, backed by COPE, for a plebiscite on captive cetaceans.
What also baffles her is departing park chair Aaron Jasper’s move to ask staff to prepare a report on the question. With no specified direction, Jasper stated in an April 9 media release that he wants the board to “work with the Vancouver Aquarium on a collaborative strategy going forward”.
With a civic election in the fall, Romaniuk said: “Vision has to look to the left as well as the right.”
COPE has severed its electoral ties with Vision. The Greens have announced candidates for council.
The track record of the centre-right Non-Partisan Association is mostly supportive of the Vancouver Aquarium, which earned $29.8 million in revenue in 2012. In 2010, the NPA joined Vision at the park board in defeating the Green-COPE bid for a plebiscite.
Four years later, Jasper dismissed suggestions that Vision is making a political football out of the whales and dolphins.
“That’s silly,” Jasper told the Straight in an April 11 phone interview.
He maintained that a “measured, thoughtful approach” that will hear from the public and the aquarium is preferable to a public vote. “They’re going to come and speak to us and talk about what they do and why they feel it’s important for their research and operations to have whales in captivity,” Jasper said.
It’s an approach that doesn’t inspire confidence, according to Green city councillor Adriane Carr.
“My big worry is that it’s an election ploy,” Carr said in a phone interview. “They’re saying they want a phase-out of cetaceans, and they’re saying, ‘Trust us to work it out.’ ”
Carr spoke to the Straight four days before she filed (“electronically”, she said, absent a seconder) a notice of motion in council for a referendum on captive cetaceans.
“Their current stance is not action,” Carr said about Vision. “It’s not [the] action that’s needed in time to be able to avoid the expansion of the facility and the inevitable increase in the number of whales in captivity.”
The aquarium is undertaking a $100-million expansion approved by an NPA-led park board in 2006.
New design plans for the project were authorized by a Vision-dominated park board on April 18, 2011. In a meeting on that day, a delegation led by Vancouver Aquarium president John Nightingale informed commissioners that about $40 million will be used to build a bigger pool for marine mammals.
In that meeting, aquarium representatives refused to commit that they would not bring in new animals once the expansion is done.
A review of the city bylaw on captive cetaceans in 2015 was one of the resolutions passed by an NPA board in 2006 when it approved the aquarium’s expansion.
But according to Carr, 2015 may be too late because that year the aquarium will start the second phase of its project, which involves enlarging cetacean pools. “We don’t have time,” she said. “We really need to move much more quickly than next year.”
With her motion, Carr hopes to force Vision’s hand.
Vision’s executive director, Stepan Vdovine, indicated the party doesn’t have a policy yet on the aquarium issue that will be reflected in its fall election platform.
However, Vdovine stressed that Vision’s elected civic officials, specifically Jasper, have outlined a plan.
“It’s a process that asks for facts, and it’s also the process that engages the public in what should be the next steps,” Vdovine told the Straight by phone.
The Vision executive rejected suggestions that his party is straddling a middle ground. “We’ve been very clear on…where we stand,” Vdovine said.
For former Green park commissioner Stuart Mackinnon, who proposed a plebiscite on captive cetaceans in 2010, Vision’s actions are “very confusing, and perhaps a little disingenuous”.
“I think that what they’re trying to do is avoid this issue coming up in the fall; that they make a statement now and they’re going to try and sweep this under the carpet,” Mackinnon told the Straight by phone. “It doesn’t tie their hands to anything, but they’ve now made a statement and they can move on.”
Meanwhile, NPA park commissioner Melissa De Genova revealed to the Straight that she hopes to run in the fall for council. She questioned why Vision didn’t take up the aquarium issue in previous years.
“If this is so important and they did not want it to become a campaign issue, then why are they bringing it up now?” De Genova asked in a phone interview with the Straight.
De Genova’s potential rivals for a council seat may include park commissioner Niki Sharma, who is seeking a Vision nomination. Like her Vision colleagues Barnes and Blyth, Sharma has issues with cetaceans in captivity.
But Sharma emphasized that she’s following Jasper’s lead, which is to wait for a staff report on the Vancouver Aquarium’s work and best practices elsewhere.
“I think we’ll take a look at what they have to say about the aquarium and figure out what the next steps are,” Sharma told the Straight by phone.
As a COPE park commissioner in 2010, Loretta Woodcock backed Green commissioner Mackinnon’s call for a plebiscite in conjunction with the following year’s civic election. Woodcock recalled that Vision trustees reasoned at that time that a 2011 ballot was too early ahead of the bylaw review.
With 2015 coming up, she feels that there’s enough reason to gauge public opinion through a nonbinding plebiscite.
“From a timeline point of view, it would make sense now,” Woodcock told the Straight.
Woodcock and Romaniuk worked together in a COPE-led park board that passed a motion in 2005 calling for a plebiscite three years later. The measure was rescinded by a succeeding NPA board on May 29, 2006. Also annulled in that 2006 meeting was a resolution approved in 1995 by a past NPA board requiring a referendum on future expansion plans by the Vancouver Aquarium.
Romaniuk noted that past pollings indicate that the issue of captive whales and dolphins is “not something that’s specific to a party”.
“If you look at supporters of Vision, COPE, or NPA, they actually don’t come down decisively on one side or the other,” Romaniuk said. “It’s maybe because of that you get Vision looking at this and saying ‘Oh, well, if we have a referendum, it would alienate the people who support having the exhibits at the aquarium.’ And if you say, however, ‘We are in favour of the exhibits,’ it alienates people who feel…they shouldn’t be there.”