The head of the park board has suggested the city hold a vote on whether or not the Vancouver Aquarium should continue to keep whales and dolphins in Stanley Park.
“I’m going to bring a motion forward to the park board for consideration…if they would like to support asking for inclusion of a referendum question on the 2018 municipal election ballot,” Sarah Kirby-Yung told the Vancouver Sun last Friday (November 18)
Kirby-Yung is a member of the Non-Partisan Association (NPA) and a former employee of the Vancouver Aquarium who worked there as vice-president of marketing and communications from 2008 to 2010.
She has long been a strong defender of the aquarium and its steadfast refusal to phase out its captive-cetaceans programs. But now, Kirby-Yung says the recent death of another of the aquarium’s beluga whales prompted her to rethink that position.
“That sparked public debate,” Kirby-Jung told the Sun. “I think it’s important that we listen to the public and provide an opportunity to do that. The [referendum] question would be along the lines of, ‘If residents of Vancouver would support having cetaceans at the Vancouver Aquarium’.”
Earlier this month, one of two beluga whales the aquarium has kept in Stanley Park, a 21-year-old male named Qila, died of unknown causes. A second beluga named Aurora has since fallen sick with similar symptoms.
Qila was the fifth cetacean associated with the Vancouver Aquarium to die within the last two years.
In August 2016, a harbour porpoise named Jack passed away.
In July of 2015, a beluga whale whose father is owned by the Vancouver Aquarium died at a SeaWorld facility in San Antonia, Texas. The calf was just three weeks old.
In May 2015, a dolphin named Hana—one of only two dolphins the Vancouver Aquarium held in captivity—passed away shortly after undergoing bowel surgery at the facility in Stanley Park.
Before that, in February 2015, a beluga whale named Nanuq died while on loan to a SeaWorld facility in Orlando, Florida.
According to a July 2014 park board report, the Vancouver Aquarium owns eight beluga whales (seven now that Qila has died). One is kept in Vancouver, four are housed at Sea World facilities in the United States, and two are on loan to the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. At least some of those animals housed in American aquariums are there on breeding loans. The terms of those arrangements can see the ownership of calves fathered by Vancouver Aquarium whales alternate between the Vancouver Aquarium and the American facility that housed the animal during the period of conception.
Following the death of Qila earlier this month, aquarium president and CEO John Nightingale told CBC News that the nonprofit would see an unspecified number of those animals returned to Vancouver.
“We would be bringing some back,” he said.
In February 2014, the Straight published an in-depth report on cetacean captivity that raised questions about how the long-term confinement of whales and dolphins can negatively affect their physical and mental health.
Following that article’s publication, two Vision Vancouver park commissioners pushed for revised bylaws that would have banned whale and dolphin breeding in Stanley Park, resulting in a slow phase out of cetacean captivity in Vancouver. However, that November, the civic election saw power on the board shift from a majority of Vision commissioners to a majority aligned with the NPA, the party of which Kirby-Yung is a member. That ended Vision’s efforts to halt cetacean breeding at the aquarium.
In April 2014, Green Party councillor Adrian Carr filed a notice of motion that called for the city to hold a referendum on the question of whale and dolphin captivity. It was voted down 9-1, primarily because opposing councillors said it was outside city hall’s mandate to force a public vote on an issue that concerned matters for the park board.
Kirby-Yung suggested that her referendum could be held in conjunction with the next civic election scheduled for November 2018.