The park board has passed a motion instructing staff to draft a bylaw that effectively ends the breeding of whales and dolphins at the Vancouver Aquarium.
It also resolved to conduct a detailed study investigating "if cetacean well-being is possible within the confines of the Vancouver Aquarium's cetacean compounds".
Commissioners voted unanimously to amend the Parks Control bylaw “to prohibit the breeding of captive cetaceans in Vancouver parks, unless, in each particular instance, the captive cetacean is a threatened species and the Oversight Committee, the Board, and the Society [Vancouver Aquarium] agree that captive breeding is necessary for the survival of such threatened species”.
The committee mentioned above refers to a second recommendation the board adopted to establish a group that will have a mandate to “provide public oversight to ensure the well-being of all cetaceans owned by the Society”. It will prepare bi-annual reports “on the status and well-being of all cetaceans owned by the Society”.
A third section of the motion passed calls for park staff to work with the aquarium "to investigate and, where viable, implement alternatives to cetacean exhibits and continue to research cetacean rehabilitation and release".
Finally, the board called on the aquarium and relevant partners to "undertake a detailed examination" on the impacts that captivity has on cetaceans. That study should "use all available scientific data to determine if cetacean well-being is possible within the confines of the Vancouver Aquarium's cetacean compounds".
The vote was made by five Vision Vancouver commissioners. The two NPA commissioners, Melissa De Genova and John Coupar, did not attend today's meeting.
After opening remarks by park board chair Aaron Jasper, the first to speak in favour of the motion was Niki Sharma, who is running for a seat on city council in civic elections scheduled for November.
“We feel that breeding an animal for a life of captivity without their being a sound conservation reason for that should be banned and prohibited," she said. “We are directing the staff to draft a bylaw change.”
Up next was Sarah Blyth, who was instrumental in putting the issue of whale and dolphin captivity on the park board's agenda.
"I think this is the beginning of a broader conversation on this issue of whales and captivity in Stanley Park," she said. "Do we need cetaceans in captivity?"
In the months preceeding today's vote, the only commissioner to equal Blyth's enthusiasm for the topic was Constance Barnes.
“I don’t really believe that the folks that are out there fighting for these cetaceans are activists," she said. "I look at this as people that are advocating for an animal that doesn’t have a voice. And I know myself—and I am maybe walking a fine line here—but less than 100 years ago, my people were being bred, and less than 100 years ago, my people were being sold, and we were being traded.”
All three of those commissioners expressed concerns for beluga whales that the Vancouver Aquarium owns but has on loan to facilities in the United States. They acknowledged that the park board’s current agreement with the Vancouver Aquarium means that those animals are beyond the jurisdiction of civic politicians.
Blyth noted that while the Vancouver Aquarium owns two Pacific white-sided dolphins and nine beluga whales, only four of those animals are actually held in tanks in Stanley Park.
“Most of our whales are not in Vancouver," she said. "They are in Sea World and at the Georgia Aquarium. And I think that people have questions about that and how we fit into an international breeding program. Do we want to be a part of this?”
The motion passed by the park board today did not include any suggestions for changes in the ways that the aquarium deals with animals that are rescued and deemed non-releasable into the wild. Speaking with media after the meeting, Jasper said he believed the aquarium's dealings with rescued whales and dolphins would continue, "business as usual".
The aquarium is currently undergoing a $100-million expansion. Earlier this month, CEO John Nightingale told the Straight that upon that project's completion, three belugas currently on loan to Sea World facilities in the United States could be brought back to Vancouver for breeding purposes. He said the aquarium could also house more dolphins if, in the future, dolphins are found to require rescue and subsequently are deemed unsuitable for release.
Reached late in the evening via email, a spokesperson for the Vancouver Aquarium told the Straight that it will not be releasing a statement in response to the park board's decision until tomorrow (August 1).
Update: In an August 1 letter posted at the aquarium's website, Nightingale claims that his organization has no breeding program.
"The Park Board’s use of the word breeding implies that we carry out some sort of planned, regulated or artificial reproduction program," he writes. "We don’t do that at the Vancouver Aquarium. Our animals do mate, just as they do in the wild, because we keep them in natural groupings—just as they live in nature."
Nightingale goes on to describe the July 31 vote as a "political decision" that was "not based on the facts or science presented".
"The Park Board decision now puts our research, our international reputation, and Canada’s belugas at serious risk over the medium and longer term," he continues.
The complete text of the aquarium's letter is available here.