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Vancouver aquarium critic calls for release of remaining three captive cetaceans

The park board decided in a unanimous vote Thursday to ban cetaceans in captivity

Jack the harbour porpoise lived at the Vancouver Aquarium from 2011 until it died in 2016. Daisy, the other porpoise in the photo, is still alive.

Vancouver Aquarium/Contributed

Jack the harbour porpoise lived at the Vancouver Aquarium from 2011 until it died in 2016. Daisy, the other porpoise in the photo, is still alive.

One whale researcher and outspoken critic of the Vancouver Aquarium says the Vancouver Park Board’s historic vote to ban cetaceans in captivity is an opportunity to not only prevent future beluga exhibits, but also to let the aquarium’s three remaining cetaceans live out their days in a seaside sanctuary.

Park board commissioners unanimously voted to amend a bylaw to effectively ban the practice of keeping cetaceans in captivity Thursday night. The decision comes after decades of heated debate over the issue, the recent unsolved deaths of two belugas, and the aquarium’s February announcement of plans to bring back up to five belugas in an expanded exhibit.

The amended bylaw could come into affect as early as May 2017 and a staff report suggests it could either allow the aquarium to keep its current cetaceans – a pacific white sided dolphin, a harbour porpoise, and a false killer whale – until they die, or force the non-profit to give up the animals.

Beluga stories: 

Animal rights activist and researcher, Peter Hamilton, hopes the aquarium moves the cetaceans into a sea pen off B.C.’s coast.

“They would be in an enriched environment, feeling the ocean currents and different temperatures with a diversity of marine life all around them,” he said.  

Hamilton has studied the southern resident orca population for 25 years.

The Lifeforce Society member says dolphin, porpoise, and false killer whale may even build up enough survival skills to be released into the wild one day.

“They have inherited natural instincts, even if they were young when they stranded. We will see, once they are put in a sea pen, how they do socialize.”

Hamilton added that the $100 million budgeted for an expanded cetacean exhibit would be better used if it were used to buy up land for conservation. But he was cynical about the aquarium’s role in protecting wildlife.

“Habitat protection and moratoriums on fishing – zoos and aquariums don’t do that,” he said.

“We can save wildlife by studying them in their natural habitat and protecting them in their natural habitat.” 

Qila, a beluga whale at the Vancouver Aquarium receives a freshly prepared herring from trainer Katie Becker during a feeding at the aquarium in Vancouver, B.C., Wednesday, Oct.19, 2011.

Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Qila, a beluga whale at the Vancouver Aquarium receives a freshly prepared herring from trainer Katie Becker during a feeding at the aquarium in Vancouver, B.C., Wednesday, Oct.19, 2011.

Porpoise stories:

But the aquarium says taking away its cetacean exhibits would jeopardize the organization’s ability to rescue and rehabilitate marine mammals.

“A ban on displaying all cetaceans at the Vancouver Aquarium will have a deep impact on the research we do and devastate our marine mammal rescue centre,” president and CEO John Nightingale said in a written statement.

But despite that, park board commissioners say public opinion has swung against the practice of keeping cetaceans in aquariums.

“Our job is to listen to the public,” said Sarah Kirby-Yung, a commissioner who used to work as the aquarium’s spokesperson. 

“This is an issue where public sentiment has been changing and, progressively, people have been feeling more and more uncomfortable.”

The park board’s general manager, Malcolm Bromley, characterized the decision as “one of the biggest decisions the park board has made.”

The Vancouver Aquarium falls under the jurisdiction of the Vancouver Park Board because it sits on park-board land. Park board staff will consult with legal counsel and return with an amendment by May 15. 

With files from The Canadian Press

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