A vote for the NPA is a vote for more whales in captivity. That’s the message that animal-rights activists want Vancouver voters to take to the polls on Saturday (November 15).
“There is one party that is really bad for the whales in Stanley Park, and that’s the NPA,” Jeff Matthews, a volunteer with the Vancouver Animal Defense League, told the Straight.
What’s at stake is a July park-board decision that provided for a ban on whale and dolphin breeding at the Vancouver Aquarium, Matthews explained. He warned that the NPA will repeal that motion if it gets the chance.
In a separate interview, Annelise Sorg, president of No Whales in Captivity, said the same thing.
“If they [the NPA] get elected, that is what they will do,” she emphasized. “Vision, COPE, and the Greens are pretty much united against keeping whales in captivity, so that’s the way to go."
Vision Vancouver mayoral incumbent Gregor Robertson called for an end to whale and dolphin captivity in April. “My personal view is that the Vancouver Aquarium should begin to phase out the holding of whales and dolphins in captivity,” he said quoted in a statement emailed to media.
The NPA did not make a representative available for an interview. Mayoral candidate Kirk LaPointe revealed his position on the issue in a July 31 news release.
“I fully support the Vancouver Aquarium’s existing policies of conservation and research around cetaceans,” he said. “I also deplore the mayor’s position that cetaceans should be phased out of this renowned cultural and scientific institution.”
Niki Sharma is a parks commissioner running on the Vision slate for city council this year. In a telephone interview, she suggested that the NPA doesn’t understand the motion passed in July.
“The position that we took as a park board was really a balanced approach, hoping that the aquarium could continue to do its work when it comes to science and rehabilitation,” Sharma said. “But it really took on the question of whether or not we should be keeping whales in captivity for the long term.”
Matthews and Sorg both called attention to what they described as a long relationship between the aquarium and the NPA.
Sorg recalled that in 2005, an aquarium employee named Heather Holden made a successful run for park board with the NPA and was subsequently appointed chair. The following year, an NPA–majority board repealed a motion that required a public vote before any expansion of the aquarium could proceed. That paved the way for the renovation under way today, which aquarium CEO John Nightingale has said could allow for more whales and dolphins to be kept in its tanks in Stanley Park.
“The aquarium has always played footsies with the NPA,” Sorg said. “Now that we’ve managed to get some resolution with Vision, the aquarium has placed in there another candidate that is staff or was former staff.”
That was a reference to NPA park-board candidate Sarah Kirby-Yung, who held the position of vice-president of marketing and communications at the aquarium from 2008 to 2010.
Sorg said she believes Kirby-Yung’s candidacy is a direct response to the park board’s ban on captive breeding.
“They’re using their usual political tricks to make sure that people elected to the park board will dismantle whatever restrictions are placed on the aquarium by previous park boards,” Sorg argued.
Matthews maintained it’s the same play that worked for the aquarium in the past . “This could have gone to a public referendum in 2005/2006 but the NPA stopped that,” he said. “And now we’re seeing a repeat of history.”
Kirby-Yung has addressed the issue of a potential conflict of interest on Twitter. She called it a “fair question” but dismissed concerns. “I am an ex-employee of Aquarium,” Kirby-Yung wrote on November 6. “Now I work for Coast Hotels. So no conflict.”
According to a July 23 park board report, the Vancouver Aquarium owns nine beluga whales. Two are kept in Vancouver, five are housed at Sea World facilities in the United States, and two are on loan to the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. Also kept in tanks in Stanley Park are two Pacific white-sided dolphins, a pair of Pacific harbour porpoises, plus a number of sea otters, seals, and sea lions.
On February 12, the Georgia Straight published an in-depth article about marine mammal captivity and the aquarium's plans to increase the number of whales and dolphins that it keeps in Vancouver. That story noted that the Vancouver Aquarium is one of the last facilities in Canada that continues to have large marine mammals on display.