The director of The Cove and four former Sea World trainers involved in the documentary film Blackfish have sent two letters to the park board calling for an end to whale and dolphin captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium.
The letters come as the aquarium prepares for a special park board meeting on cetacean captivity taking place Saturday (July 26) at 9 a.m.
In the first, dated July 23, The Cove director Louis Psihoyos argues that aquariums' trading of live dolphins supports dolphin hunts like the one that occurs annually in Taiji, Japan.
“The captive dolphin trade is a $2 billion a year business,” he writes. “The principal suppliers are the drive hunts like those in Taiji, where each dolphin can attract prices as high as $150,000. Many of the primary customers of the drive hunts are ‘reputable’ aquariums in Japan. Facilities such as the Enoshima Aquarium have been loyal customers of the fishermen from Futo, Japan for years; fishermen who have a history of drive hunt brutality that rivals their colleagues in Taiji.”
Psihoyos notes that the Vancouver Aquarium’s two Pacific white-sided dolphins, Helen and Hana, came from Japan. He goes on to argue it’s impossible to confirm under what circumstances those animals were obtained.
“The truth is, there is no way of knowing for sure whether these two dolphins were indeed rescued from fishing nets or were casualties of some other tragedy,” Psihoyos continues. “But what is known is that the purchase or import of any dolphin from aquariums like Enoshima serves only to fuel the drive hunts and perpetuate the killing. You cannot own a Japan dolphin without getting blood on your hands.”
The Vancouver Aquarium has always maintained that its dolphins were injured and rescued from fishing nets, that they could not survive if returned to the wild, and that they would be dead without the rehabilitation efforts of aquarium staff.
“There is no even indirect possible connection [to the Taiji hunt],” aquarium CEO John Nightingale told the Straight in August 2009.
The second July 23 letter, authored by former Sea World trainers who appeared in the 2013 documentary Blackfish, describes how their experiences working with cetaceans led them to oppose aquariums that keep large marine mammals in captivity.
“Life in captivity is a constant struggle for these intelligent, emotional and social animals, as evidenced time and again by significant health issues that lead to premature death,” the letter reads. “Health issues include depressed immune systems at least partly due to inadequate nutrition as well as stressors such as social strife/animal aggressions, and reduced room to move. The list is almost endless, but the main take-away should be that whales and dolphins simply do not thrive in captivity. It is impossible to provide the space, living conditions, and social and environmental stimulation for them to thrive. To continue to attempt to do this is irresponsible.”
The letter’s co-signers, Samantha Berg, Jeffrey Ventre, John Jett, and Carol Ray, do not call for animals currently held at the Vancouver Aquarium to be released into the wild. Instead, they suggest a “phase out”, where no additional whales or dolphins are brought into captivity at the aquarium in the future.
The Vancouver Aquarium is currently undergoing a $100-million expansion. Nightingale has said that upon completion, beluga whales on loan to facilities in the United States could be brought back to Vancouver, and that additional dolphins could also be housed in Stanley Park.
Since Blackfish’s release, the Vancouver Aquarium has made efforts to distance itself from the sort of entertainment-oriented aquariums portrayed in the film.
In a March 2014 interview with the Straight, Nightingale emphasized that the organization he heads is different from Sea World facilities. “The Vancouver Aquarium hasn’t held or displayed orcas in 13 years, we don’t have anything to do with orcas, and it [the film] isn’t about us,” he said.
The Cove director’s letter comes shortly after the film’s star, former dolphin trainer turned conservationist Ric O’Barry, sent a similar letter dated July 21 to the park board. Famed primatologist Jane Goodall has also weighed in and encouraged the aquarium to cease holding cetaceans in captivity, as has Mayor Gregor Robertson.
On the other side of the debate, the Vancouver Board of Trade recently issued a statement in support of the aquarium. Its letter emphasizes that given the aquarium's policy forbidding capturing animals from the wild, the Vancouver Board of Trade "does not object to the current cetacean policy of the Vancouver Aquarium". And on July 23, an independent report on aquarium best practices commissioned by the park board gave the Vancouver facility a highly positive assessment.
The park board’s July 26 special meeting comes ahead of municipal elections in November and an aquarium contract review scheduled for 2015.