Earlier this month, the Vancouver Park Board voted unanimously to ban the practice of keeping dolphins, beluga whales and other cetaceans in captivity, effectively putting an end to the Vancouver Aquarium’s public display of cetaceans.
The aquarium, which sits on park grounds in historic Stanley Park, currently has a pacific white sided dolphin, a harbour porpoise and a false killer whale, all centrepiece attractions which aquarium representatives say are emblematic of the institution’s long track record of conservationism
“We are the only place in Canada that has the capability of responding to a live stranded cetacean, bring them into a facility, and successful rehabilitate those animals,” said Dr. Martin Haulena, a veterinarian at the aquarium, to Global News.
Yet, after two days of public meetings and hearing from over 50 presentations, the seven-member board were content with the result, with Park Board Commissioner Stuart Mackinnon saying the time was right for the board’s decision. “Commissioners, the time to act is now,” said Mackinnon in a statement towards the motion. “The aquarium has no intention of listening to us or listening to the voters. They have no intention of ending captivity for cetaceans themselves. Therefore, we must do it here and now.”
In part, the move is said to have come in response to the unexplained deaths of two beluga whales at the aquarium this past November, along with stated plans by the aquarium to build a multi-million dollar expansion exhibit which would have involved up to five beluga whales on display.
Experts have weighed in on both sides of the bylaw amendment. Animal rights activist and researcher, Peter Hamilton, says that the aquarium’s remaining cetaceans should be brought to an ocean sanctuary and, hopefully, returned to the wild after they’ve built up their own survival skills. “Habitat protection and moratoriums on fishing – zoos and aquariums don’t do that,” Hamilton said to Metro News. “We can save wildlife by studying them in their natural habitat and protecting them in their natural habitat.”
But others say keeping animals in captivity, especially endangered and threatened species, can go a long way towards bringing an animal’s plight into public awareness. “People need to understand that historically the display of cetaceans has transformed public view, it has transformed the scientific view of cetaceans and the way that scientists interact,” says Jason Colby, University of Victoria historian, to CBC News. “There’s a danger of being out of sight and out of mind.”
Nevertheless, the era of aquariums and parks putting intelligent species like dolphins and orcas on display is quickly slipping into the past. Marineland Park in Niagara Falls, Ontario, the only other park with captive cetaceans in Canada, has faced a constant barrage of criticism over recent years for the treatment of its animals, with new animal cruelty charges laid by the Ontario SPCA in January. In the United States, the state of California last year approved a bill to ban captive orca performances and breeding programs and the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, has decided to end its dolphin exhibits and plans to move its dolphins to a ocean sanctuary.
More widely, the multinational marine park company, SeaWorld, has reportedly suffered losses over the past three years. And TripAdvisor, the world’s largest online travel website, has decided it will no longer promote excursions to attractions involving wildlife interactions such as those offering swimming with dolphins experiences.
The writing is clearly on the tank wall, leaving it incumbent upon institutions like the Vancouver Aquarium to come up with a new plan to advance their conservationist and public education mandates. Reflecting on the two days of public presentations in front of the board, Mackinnon said, “The speaker who inspired me the most was the one who asked what greater accomplishments could the aquarium attain if they did not have cetaceans in captivity. What new and innovative ways of doing science would be stimulated if they had to rethink what they do and how they do it.”