The Vancouver Park Board voted unanimously on Thursday evening to allow the aquarium to keep cetaceans in captivity at a special meeting, but ordered an end to the breeding of most whales and dolphins.
The board has instructed its staff to file an amendment to the park law that would ban the breeding of whales, dolphins and porpoises in Vancouver’s parks unless it is an endangered species.
Board chairman Aaron Jasper says it was not an easy decision.
“Every time we came back to the breeding program, we felt like this was a program that could serve other purposes, but we weren’t convinced it served the purpose of conservation, rescue rehabilitation, or research. So that’s where we pulled the border in the sand,” he said.
The council has also mandated the establishment of a monitoring committee composed of animal welfare experts to ensure the safety and welfare of captive cetaceans.
But it stopped requiring the aquarium to phase out its whale and dolphin program. The aquarium and park staff did ask that alternatives to displaying cetaceans be explored.
John Nightingale, president of the Vancouver Aquarium, said the facility does not have a formal breeding program and it will be difficult to prevent the animals from breeding alone.
“Healthy animals sometimes mate. So keeping them apart or using artificial contraceptives or whatever method the park administration is going to impose is not natural, so it’s kind of like animal cruelty,” he said.
Currently, the aquarium has only two female belugas, females Aurora and Qila, two female Pacific white-sided dolphins, Hana and Helen, and two rescued porpoises, Jack and Daisy, who are too young to breed.
But the aquarium also has seven other belugas on loan to other accredited institutions, including five at SeaWorld and two at the Georgia Aquarium.
The park administration is also calling on the aquarium to conduct a study “using all available scientific evidence” to determine whether cetacean welfare is possible in the aquarium’s whale pools.
Nightingale said he was disappointed by the political interference in the aquarium’s activities.
“I have to say that I think we are probably most disappointed with the park board’s decision to take over the management of its animals, and to some extent our entire mission from our experts in the aquarium, and hand it over to the politicians.”
The vote came after more than 100 speakers expressed their views on the Vancouver Aquarium’s controversial program over the course of three park board meetings.
Many of the speakers called for a phasing out of the aquarium program that allows whales and dolphins to be kept in captivity.
But Jasper said the board was against it because it didn’t want to jeopardize the aquarium’s success.
Outside of the post-vote meeting, Errol Povah expressed disappointment and said the park board did not go far enough.
“They’ve stated that they want to stop breeding in Vancouver’s parks, which presumably refers to the aquarium. As I understand it, it’s not about sending Vancouver-owned whales and dolphins to other aquariums for breeding purposes, which I think is the case. should have.”
CBC News found mixed scientific opinions on the research benefits of captive cetaceans, with some experts speaking for and many against confining whales and dolphins in aquarium pools.
In May, famed conservationist Jane Goodall weighed in on the controversy, writing a letter to the aquarium stating that on-site breeding of cetaceans “is no longer justifiable by science”.
Past births and deaths controversial
In the past, deaths of whales and dolphins born at the facility have prompted calls to end the cetacean program.
The aquarium is licensed by the park board and already has a no-capture policy. It currently has a mix of rescued animals that cannot be returned to the ocean and animals born in captivity.
It also has a marine mammal rescue center, not in Stanley Park, which recently rescued a false killer whale that was stranded near Tofino.
A total of five captive beluga whales were born in the aquarium and three of them died before their third birthday. Experts say the survival rate is comparable to the survival rate for wild calves.
Aurora, a female beluga, arrived at the Vancouver Aquarium from Churchill, Manitoba in the summer of 1990. She was born in the wild in about 1987.
Qila is the daughter of Aurora. She was born at the Aquarium on July 23, 1995, making her the first beluga to be born and sired in a Canadian aquarium. Her father, Nanuq, now lives at Sea World in the United States.
Qila gave birth to her own calf, Tiqa, in 2008, making Tiqa the first calf born from an aquarium-born beluga. The birth was broadcast live on the internet around the world and made international headlines. But Tiqu died of pneumonia at the age of three.
Aurora’s second calf, Tuvaq, was born in 2002 but died suddenly in 2005.
Aurora’s third calf Nala was born to Aurora in June 2009 but pennies and pebbles thrown into the beluga tank clogged her breathing hole caused her death.
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