Protesters will once again gather outside Vancouver Aquarium Saturday for the seventh annual Empty the Tanks protest — a worldwide rally against cetacean captivity.
The event in Vancouver is just one of more than 60 taking place at locations in 22 countries, and one of six across Canada.
The protest comes as a new federal law banning whale and dolphin captivity is nearing final approval. Third reading of Bill S-203 was set to take place this week in the House of Commons. The bill bans the import and export of cetaceans, with exceptions for scientific research or “if it is in the best interest” of the animal, with discretion left up to the federal fisheries minister. It will also change the Criminal Code, creating new animal cruelty offences related to keeping cetaceans in captivity, and bans breeding.
The bill includes a grandfather clause for animals already in facilities in Canada and permits legitimate research and the rescue of animals in distress.
Protest organizers point out that last week two Vancouver Aquarium-owned beluga whales were moved from Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ont., where they were being cared for, to Oceanografic, an aquarium in Valencia, Spain, which is also operated by Vancouver Aquarium. Fisheries and Oceans Canada approved permits to move the marine mammals.
“With only a few more days left before the trade of captive whales and dolphins in Canada becomes legal, Vancouver Aquarium just couldn’t resist squeezing one last bit of profit from the suffering of these creatures,” said local Empty the Tanks organizer Jeff Matthews.
In a statement to Canadian Press, Vancouver Aquarium said the deal would not cost the Spanish facility any money.
“These two aquarium-born belugas will receive exceptional care at Oceanografic, where they will join a small social grouping of whales already in care there,” the statement reads.
Both Marineland and Vancouver Aquarium told Canadian Press the decision to move the whales had nothing to do with the anti-captivity bill.
“The decision to move them was made in their best interest, not because of politics,” the aquarium said.
Protesters support the rescue of cetaceans when necessary but argue that ocean-based sanctuaries are the only humane option for long-term care.
Vancouver Park Board in 2017 voted to ban the importation of new cetaceans to city parks as well as prohibiting performances. The aquarium launched legal proceedings in an effort to overturn the ban, arguing the park board does not have the statutory power to enact the bylaw. In February 2018, a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled in favour of the aquarium, striking down the bylaw. However, the park board launched an appeal and earlier this year the Court of Appeal ruled in favour of the park board.
In January 2018, Vancouver Aquarium announced its decision to stop displaying cetaceans. Helen, a Pacific white-sided dolphin, is the only cetacean left living at the aquarium.
Saturday’s Empty the Tanks event outside Vancouver Aquarium in Stanley Park runs from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m.
- With files from Liam Casey/Canadian Press