Vision Vancouver opponents question motives behind review of captivity at Vancouver Aquarium

Municipal politicians finally seem to be taking an interest in our captive cetaceans, but is it all just politics as usual?

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      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.”




      Apr 16, 2014 at 3:11pm

      More bike lanes! Less door knobs! ~Vision

      Marcus W

      Apr 16, 2014 at 6:39pm

      There is no vision in the idea of 'phasing out' the Vancouver Aquarium's ability to rescue and rehabilitate marine mammals. We are seeing a trend of an increase in cetacean strandings worldwide, any in many cases it is people who are to blame for that. It is very likely that as awareness increases, more animals will be reported as stranded every year, and they will be in need of rescue. It is our moral responsibility to empower this facility to rescue these animals, and to provide them with a home if it is determined that no release is possible.
      Calls for the release of the four rescued and rehabilitated cetaceans that already live at the Aquarium, and calling for no more cetaceans to be allowed into Stanley Park, will likely mean an early death for the animals in question, and prevent the Aquarium from bringing in new rescued animals to its facility. This is extremely shortsighted and we should not listen to the few people who express extremist views based on what they believe to be facts, but which in fact are just old, copy & pasted arguments from popular groups that blankly oppose all zoos and aquariums, ignoring the fact that no two facilities are alike. They do not take into account what the Aquarium does, they do not care about the 100+ rescued and released marine mammals every year, they do not want to hear about the Aquarium's role in the rescue of killer whales, or the release of a harbour porpoise last year.

      Of Whales and Money.

      Apr 16, 2014 at 8:13pm

      Vision stands for developers, bankers, lawyers, speculators, but it still wants to believe it stands something else, so it brandishes its soft green credentials and comes up with this. I agree with the stand, but it is a diversion by Vision to take our attention away from the housing crisis that is an overwhelming burden on the backs of so many Vancouverites, a financial burden and a constant threat to security. Wait for the next election when Vision floods the town with millions of dollars of developers' money as it buys city hall again.

      Martin Dunphy

      Apr 16, 2014 at 8:19pm


      Thanks for the post.
      If you have identified any errors in this article, please elaborate.
      I think you know it is not only a "few people" with "extremist" views who object to cetaceans in captivity. (Funny, that word <em>extremist</em> is Vancouver Aquarium supremo Mr. Nightingale's favourite label for concerned anti-captivity citizens.)
      Also, no one is seriously calling for the release of the cetaceans already in captivity here, just a halt to breeding programs and bringing in any more cetaceans in need of "rehabilitation".
      As well, no one is suggesting the aquarium cease any local rescue programs it already runs, but you must know it does not play an important part in any international marine-mammal rescue network.
      Far from it. About 99 percent of the marine mammals it "rescues" are harbour-seal pups that every year are reported abandoned by well-meaning citizens who discover them in natural, camouflaged solitude while their mothers are out hunting.
      Their subsequent "rehabilitation" and release (to well-orchestrated and well-attended media fanfare every year) earns the aquarium priceless brownie points with the public and compliant news outlets (the usual suspects).
      So, your objections are directed at whom, exactly?

      End the Aquarium

      Apr 16, 2014 at 9:28pm

      Let's bulldoze the Aquarium and build social housing in Stanley Park!

      Michael Ping

      Apr 16, 2014 at 9:37pm

      COPE accuses Vision of playing politics while playing politics. Yawn.

      Marcus W

      Apr 16, 2014 at 10:27pm


      I was referring to 'extremist views'. By that I mean black & white views on issues that clearly demand a more complex approach.

      Actually, if you carefully follow the comments on social media and under news articles similar to this, you will find that there are indeed quite a few that actually call for the animals to be euthanized, others demand their release into sea pens. And yes, there are some that simply want to see these animals released back into the wild. You will also find these sentiments in one variation or another among all the popular activist groups.

      What I do know is that the Vancouver Aquarium has the means and the experience to rescue marine mammals, as they have demonstrated in the past. They are working with Fisheries and Oceans Canada - and it is the Vancouver Aquarium's Marine Mammal Rescue Centre they call if a cetacean is found stranded.

      You are correct in that their most common patients are indeed harbour seals. Many releases happen very early in the morning and without an audience though - and of course they there are some to which the media is invited. It would be very odd if they did not publicize their work. In fact I know of no organization that would not try and grab attention for their cause, animal rights groups included.

      I disagree with your opinion about harbour seal rescues though, as these animals are monitored before they are taken into care to ensure that the mothers are not just out hunting. Many of the pups are dehydrated, underweight etc. -- and if you want to suggest something else, please back that up with facts.
      The patient list is in the public domain:

      Martin Dunphy

      Apr 17, 2014 at 1:29am


      Thanks for your reply.
      I am well aware of the work of the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre: I have toured it and am close to someone who volunteered there for quite a while.
      Let's just say I know what I know, and I am not denying that the vast majority of the work done there--almost exclusively on dehydrated harbour-seal pups--is done in good faith.

      And do feel free to come out and admit that you are an aquarium volunteer yourself.

      Maury Doge talks politics

      Apr 17, 2014 at 8:53am


      Give me a break, your bias shines through clearly in every comment you have posted on each article written to give the aquarium a bad light. It's interesting to see that these activists when showing "facts" only link back to other activist webpages - as my canine bro would say WOW WHAT CREDIBLE.

      Would you like some proof? One of these activist so called facts is that the aquarium holds two dolphins from the Drive fisheries from Japan, guess what Maury reviewed it and discovered that was a LIE! Refer to - which is an admittly neutral tracking website focused on dolphins in captivity. Then cross reference with that information with wow look such facts! In 2003 not one single Pacific White-sided Dolphin was caught in those fisheries! Too bad about 1996 no information readily available.

      Also to comment on article: its clear this is politiking from all sides - it's an election year and everyone wants to gain easy votes. None of these politicians have put any thought into how or what they would do regarding the cetaceans at the aquarium.

      Marcus W

      Apr 17, 2014 at 9:09am

      @ Martin

      Why downplay the role they have played and still play in the rehabilitation of harbour porpoises and other cetaceans? I also fail to see the relevance of highlighting that their most common patients are harbour seals. They actually mention that on their website.

      I for once am glad that we do not yet match Europe's North and Baltic seas when it comes to the number of strandings. in the Netherlands, on the premises of the Dolfinarium Harderwijk, rescues harbour porpoises on a very regular basis, and they, too, keep those that are deemed non-releasable. Their facility is open to the public. They have given up on neonates as they are so notoriously difficult to rehabilitate - and given that the Vancouver Aquarium has managed to rescue and rehabilitate two neonate harbour porpoises only demonstrates their expertise, and how dedicated the staff at the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre are.
      We are seeing an increase in strandings worldwide, so I would not be surprised if there were more cetaceans in need of help in the years ahead - hopefully mature enough and in a condition to be released after their rehabilitation.

      If a killer whale is found in distress, if a harbour porpoise is found stranded - or indeed if a harbour seal pup is seen without its mother for a long time, dehydrated and underweight, it is the Vancouver Aquarium they call.