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Park board cetacean ban puts marine mammals in peril, Vancouver Aquarium argues

The Vancouver Aquarium is trying to rally public support with an argument that a proposed park-board ban on captive cetaceans puts marine mammals in peril.

The park board on May 15 will consider a bylaw that would ban the import and display of live cetaceans — whales, dolphins and porpoises — in city parks, including Stanley Park, where the aquarium logged a record 1.2 million visitors last year.

At a news conference Thursday, Randy Pratt, incoming chairman of the board at the aquarium, said the ban will specifically hurt its Marine Mammal Rescue Program, which saves roughly 100 distressed animals each year.

Pratt said the aquarium’s attempts to share expert research with the park board have “fallen on deaf ears” and said leaving the program’s fate up to its commissioners will have “dire consequences” for rescue animals.

“The proposed ban jeopardizes Canada’s only marine mammal rescue program and eliminates our ability to save the most-vulnerable of animals — those that cannot care for themselves,” he said.

No it won’t, said Michael Wiebe, chairman of the park board.

“Cetaceans are a very small component of that rescue work,” Wiebe said, while praising the centre’s work.

Trainers work with a false killer whale at the Vancouver Aquarium in April 2017. The park board is debating a ban on display of cetaceans.

Aquarium CEO Dr. John Nightingale called the proposed ban “deeply troubling.” Nightingale said Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) would have to consider alternatives such as euthanasia for sick and injured marine mammals if the rescue program became unavailable.

Dr. Martin Haulena said that of the roughly 100 mammals the program rescues each year, only one or two are cetaceans, such as a false killer whale and harbour porpoise currently in its care.

The aquarium is now calling on the public — including its paying members, who were sent emails Thursday — to send the park board letters on the aquarium’s behalf expressing support for the marine mammal rescue program.

But Wiebe said the park board has already undertaken an exhaustive public-input effort. There is, he said, a possibility that the existing cetaceans could stay.

“The decision could be we grandfather them in, the decision could be they get moved to other centres,” he said.

If passed, no new cetaceans will be allowed at the aquarium, nor will any of the aquarium’s cetaceans that aren’t now inside the facility.

“That doesn’t mean it can’t stay at the rescue centre, it can’t be released, it can’t be moved to a different facility,” Wiebe said. “But it will not be brought into Stanley Park.”

The Vancouver Aquarium’s last surviving beluga whales, Aurora (pictured in 2002) and Qila, died within days of each other of a mysterious toxin last November.

The aquarium is currently in the midst of a $100-million project that includes new buildings and larger whale tanks, approved by an earlier park board in 2006.

In February, the aquarium announced it had updated the plan to include building a bigger beluga tank and bringing back five belugas — currently on loan to U.S. breeding programs — in 2019. Captive whales would be phased out by 2029, according to that plan.

Nightingale said he wasn’t certain what their fate would be if the ban passes.

Wiebe said the future is now, that the park board is merely moving up the aquarium’s plans.

“What we did is we made a decision that would advance what the Vancouver Aquarium thought should happen, (but) 12 years earlier. They said they were going to bring belugas in, but phase them out … we think before building brand-new tanks, we should move that process up further.”

The aquarium has been prohibited by the park board from catching cetaceans for display since 1996.

Last November, the aquarium’s only whales, Aurora, 30, and her calf Qila, 21, died nine days apart. Aquarium officials recently said a five-month investigation revealed both belugas had been killed by a mysterious toxic substance, passed to them by food, water or human interference.

The belugas’ deaths led to a public outcry from conservationists and activists, who have since voiced support for the park board’s proposed ban.

Peter Hamilton, founder of Lifeforce, which has been fighting against the captivity of cetaceans for decades, described the aquarium’s latest announcement as public-relations “spin.”

“The aquarium PR always makes it seem like they’re the only ones doing (rescues),” he said. “That is misinformation.”

Hamilton said established protocols for cetacean rescue operations, many of them carried out by non-profit groups and government organizations, are based on keeping the animals in the wild.

He cited the case of Springer, an emaciated orca rescued by the Vancouver Aquarium in co-operation with the Canadian and U.S. governments in 2002 after she became separated from her pod in Washington state.

Springer was rehabilitated in two sea pens before being released in B.C.’s Dong Chong Bay, near Johnson Strait, where she reintegrated with members of her pod.

“If they want to do cetaceans, they can use a sea pen,” Hamilton said. “There are ways to save them that aren’t in a noisy, public tourist attraction.”

Annelise Sorg of aquarium watchdog No Whales in Captivity said her group also supports the use of sea pens for cetacean rescues. She believes the aquarium was being deceitful in its argument that the ban will impact its ability to rescue marine mammals.

Sorg said that with the majority of the aquarium’s 100 animal rescues each year being seals at its Marine Mammal Rescue Centre — which is at the north foot of Main Street and not on park-board land — the board’s proposed bylaw would have little impact on its infrequent rescues of cetaceans.

“This is just another way that the Vancouver Aquarium is trying to continue making money off cetaceans being kept in show tanks,” she said. “They know that this is the end and they should really just back off spinning this story and trying to make the public believe that the seal-rescue centre will actually suffer because they can’t rescue cetaceans.”

The B.C. SPCA also supports ending the captivity of marine mammals, last year posting an e-petition on the issue sponsored by Saanich-Gulf Islands MP Elizabeth May.

“The B.C. SPCA recognizes the complex needs of cetaceans, and their highly sentient and social nature,” SPCA science officer Dr. Sara Dubois said in a media release. “It is time to phase-out these displays.”

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— With files from Randy Shore and Glen Schaefer

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