Former Sea World trainers from Blackfish call for an end to cetacean captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium

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      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.



      Daylon Payne

      Jul 25, 2014 at 9:29pm

      Its intereresting how the report does not comment on anything morally or ethically regarding these animals. It states that. Yet we are humans are we not? We are not robots? These are highly intelligent sentient beings. We need to take morals and ethics into consideration. There are many many issues that arose in the past that we as humans should be ashamed of. Humans being researched on, human zoos, slavery, you name it.... This is another atrocity we will look back on in 50 years and wonder what we were thinking.

      Teresa Wagner

      Jul 26, 2014 at 7:09am

      $100 million to "expand" captive facilities? This is obscene. It should be spent on sea pens as a means to release the captive whales who have suffered long enough to make this institution money. Free the cetaceans.

      Debbie Blalock

      Jul 26, 2014 at 7:53am

      Mr. Nightingale needs to review the history of the Vancouver Aquarium before making statements saying the institution has nothing to do with orcas. It, in fact, institutionalized captivity with Moby Doll. More distressing is that as a representative of an aquarium, he isn't up to date on the latest science that shows captivity is wrong for all cetaceans. Note to Mr. Nightingale: orcas are dolphins.

      Supporting Research

      Jul 26, 2014 at 7:11pm

      I find attacks on the Vancouver Aquarium hard to stomach when they are mentioned in the same statements as Sea World. A not-for-profit organization who initiates and funds research into all sorts of marine animals requires that money to come from somewhere - and large mammal attractions are one of those major benefactors.

      For me, it was volunteering at the Aquarium that first made me aware of the ocean's plight - and all the research the Aquarium does in all kinds of populations to try and help the ocean recover from its years and years and YEARS of extreme exploitation and abuse. As a child, being able to see a real whale was so much more tangible than seeing photographs in a book or on the internet. Institutions such as these help raise children interested in the sciences, interested in biology - people who can grow up and continue to help try and restore the damage already done. Science takes time, and those baby steps aren't the things the news will report on - we hear much more about accusations, rumours, and failures then we do successes, improvements, and achievements.

      Capturing healthy animals from the wild hasn't been in the Vancouver Aquarium's agenda in a very, very long time. And I think that the attack on this facility in particular has been rather misguiding in light of the documentary BLACKFISH and the backlash against theme parks such as SeaWorld. Why are places like SeaWorld still operating with captured animals, while they pressure research institutions and educational centres like the Vancouver Aquarium to oust animals rescued and bred in captivity? What if those breeding programs and the science behind them become successful enough to begin releasing animals back into the wild?


      Jul 27, 2014 at 8:32am

      The experience at the aquarium as a child is profound, learning about these majestic creatures "out there" in the ocean. In this sense, exploiting a few serves to benefit them collectively in the long-term...especially with the hectic pace of life.

      But if the lobbyists influence the closure of this enjoyable educational institute, then so be it. Extinction of species will continue unabated, out of sight and out of mind. Unless there is some connection, kids of future generations will not even bother googling up 'images' of an animal they read that just went extinct.

      In these current times, issues dissolve at the flip of a page or click of an online news article....and that's it. Plus, living without conscience, worrying about repercussions of our actions, would be easier anyway.

      Tommy Khang

      Jul 27, 2014 at 6:54pm

      You know what's real animal cruelty? Denial of sex! No breeding program means no sex ever! Now that's cruelty.

      Alan Layton

      Jul 28, 2014 at 2:20pm

      If having captive cetaceans performing for crowds is the best way to save them in the wild, then why was the Polar bear exhibit next door shutdown? It was shutdown because there was a referendum and the people of Vancouver voted to get rid of it and the zoo. I'm guessing that captive cetaceans supporters would support bringing in wild bears and teaching them to wear silly hats and ride bicycles to pay for research.

      Nightingale is also using scare tactics by saying that if they stop the performances then the tax payer will have to pick up the slack. As soon as that argument is used then you know their scientific reasons are suspect at best. The aquarium does have a top notch marine mammal rescue center, but they just need to find a better way to fund it. Performing cetaceans will eventually be phased out. It may not happen tomorrow, but happen it will.


      Jul 28, 2014 at 4:07pm

      Let's close every pet owners homes too .. Don't worry there will be a new organization that will call pet owners to strike back at these misinformed spoiled children which btw why don't these big mouth anti animal crazies do a naked and afraid episode and see how long until they last until they use animals for their own very survival - that would put this all in perfect perspective !