Removing whales and dolphins from the Vancouver Aquarium isn’t as simple as one might think. As politicians squabble over whether or not to hold a plebiscite on the matter, an animal-rights activist outlined three paths the aquarium could take in ending cetacean captivity at its facility in Stanley Park.
Julie Woodyer, campaigns director for Zoocheck Canada, told the Georgia Straight by phone that the ideal outcome would be rehabilitating cetaceans and reintroducing them into the wild. She noted, however, that such undertakings are prohibitively expensive. (Nobody on the park board or city council is discussing the release of animals currently held at the aquarium.)
Woodyer described option two as “attrition”, where a moratorium is placed on the aquarium bringing any new animals into its tanks and where breeding programs are discontinued.
“The downside of attrition is, you don’t want to end up getting down to one or even just two animals,” she added. “These are highly social animals, so they should be in larger groups.”
Option three, Woodyer continued, is the transfer of the aquarium’s whales and dolphins to facilities with equal or greater standards of care and where there are larger cetacean populations with which the Vancouver animals could socialize and live out the rest of their days in conditions as comfortable as possible.
“The social groups that exist at the Vancouver Aquarium currently are not really sufficient,” Woodyer said. “They should be making every effort they can to move those animals out now.”
At the centre of the debate are two dolphins and two beluga whales held in tanks in Stanley Park, plus an additional three whales the aquarium has on loan to Sea World facilities in the United States.
On April 9, Gregor Robertson revealed that he opposes the aquarium keeping those animals in captivity. But the mayor didn’t exactly say what he thinks should happen next.
Former Green Party park commissioner Stuart Mackinnon told the Straight that the first step should be giving the public a say on the matter. He suggested that a nonbinding plebiscite could be held in conjunction with civic elections scheduled for November.
“Once the public has voted, it would be hard for a future board to change that,” Mackinnon said.
Mackinnon tried and failed to get a plebiscite on the ballot in 2010. He recalled it was a “really nasty battle”, but he said he thinks there’s more support for such an action today.
Tim Louis, external chair for the Coalition of Progressive Electors, told the Straight that his civic party already has a draft of the language for a plebiscite.
If people voted in favour of captivity, “current conditions” at the aquarium would remain in place until the facility’s lease expires in 2027. If people voted against captivity, the aquarium would be advised to phase out whale and dolphin exhibits by 2027.
“The details would be worked out in partnership with the Vancouver Aquarium, the park board, and folks that are experts in this area,” Louis added.
Vision park-board chair Aaron Jasper recently announced he is asking the aquarium to appear at a public meeting and deliver a presentation on programming. He has also requested that staff research best practices for aquariums.
Jasper told the Straight that he opposes holding a public vote on cetacean captivity, arguing that it’s “too complex an issue”. He said, however, that another park commissioner could draft a motion calling for a plebiscite. A majority of the board would then have to vote in favour of sending the request to city council.
In accordance with the Vancouver Charter, council would then hold a vote on whether or not the question would appear on the ballot.
Annelise Sorg, president of No Whales in Captivity, described the November 2014 election as the “last chance” activists have for real change at the aquarium.
“We’ve been through this for decades,” she said. “What we need to discuss is a referendum that will bring this up in the municipal elections.”