Updated: Politicians tread water on whale referendum question

Part two of a continuing series on the Vancouver Aquarium

If personal opinions were a deciding factor, whales and dolphins  would likely be gone from the Vancouver Aquarium as soon as possible.

Many of the city’s politicians, including Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, Vision park bard chair Aaron Jasper, Vision park board commissioner Sarah Blyth and vice-chair Constance Barnes, as well as Vision Coun. Kerry Jang, say they “personally” don’t agree with keeping whales and dolphins in captivity.

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But when it comes to supporting a referendum on the question in the November civic election, those same politicians show little support. On March 30, COPE voted in favour of including a question on the ballot of the November civic election asking if residents want whale and dolphin exhibits phased out at the aquarium.

In a public statement released Wednesday, the mayor said in part, “My personal view is that the Vancouver Aquarium should begin to phase out the holding of whales and dolphins in captivity.”

Robertson added he doesn’t support a citywide referendum on the issue because the park board has the authority to phase out keeping whales and dolphins in Stanley Park.

In an email to the Courier, Coalition For No Whales in Captivity spokesperson Annelise Sorg said Robertson’s position was not good enough.
Sorg is concerned a new park board elected in November won’t have the experience needed to go up against the aquarium. She added while she’s pleased the mayor agrees supports eliminating whale and dolphin exhibits, her group will continue to push for a referendum.

“We do not agree with the mayor that newly elected park board commissioners should be left to negotiate behind closed doors next year with the powerful Vancouver top-notch lawyers representing the Vancouver Aquarium,” Sorg wrote. “We will continue to pursue our two-decades long goal to have the park board approve holding a public referendum on the issue of whale captivity.”

Sorg noted the aquarium is a public attraction on public land. She said a referendum would ensure the facility complies with the wishes of Vancouver residents and willingly end its whale and dolphin exhibits by not bringing in any more cetaceans.

Last week aquarium president John Nightingale told the Courier that once a new expanded whale tank is completed, the facility would bring back three belugas on loan to other facilities to join the two already there.

Barnes, who announced this week she’s seeking the NDP nomination for Vancouver Centre, and Blyth, an outgoing Vision commissioner, said last week they believe whales and dolphins should no longer be kept and bred at the Vancouver Aquarium.  

Barnes said she was prepared to bring forward a motion asking that cetaceans at the aquarium be phased out, but she backed off after Vision Vancouver decided on an official policy.

On Wednesday, Jasper said in a press release he’ll bring forward a motion asking staff for a public report on keeping cetaceans in captivity and examine best practices from around the world in marine mammal rehabilitation. Staff will also be directed to review the aquarium’s work with cetaceans, including policies on rehabilitation and work with other aquariums, as well as current agreements between the park board and aquarium.

The motion also asks the aquarium to make a presentation on its work at a public park board meeting.

“Before taking any action, let’s get all the information together in one place, in public, and work with the Vancouver Aquarium on a collaborative strategy for going forward,” added Jasper.

Jasper said he personally struggles with the issue.

“As an individual and a dad with kids I have to think about the ethics of captivity,” said Jasper, who is not seeking re-election. “But as the park board chair, I have to think about how we can proceed in respect to this issue and the feelings of the public. The aquarium has entered into the expansion based on the decisions of our predecessors and has acted in good faith.”

In response to the mayor’s comments Wednesday, the Vancouver Aquarium released an unattributed statement, which reads in part: “It is unfortunate we were unable to connect with the mayor of Vancouver prior to his issuing his statement. We appreciate the fact that he is very supportive of the aquarium, and we recognize he has personal feelings, but believe he might not understand the vital role belugas and dolphins play in our important conservation efforts. Dolphins and belugas at Vancouver Aquarium play a direct and vital role in engaging people in key ocean issues. In addition, with the rapid environmental changes in the Arctic where belugas live, continued research, much of which must be done in marine science centres like the Vancouver Aquarium, is critical to their future.”

The statement noted that in 1996 the aquarium took a leadership role and became the first, and only, aquarium to make a formal commitment to stop participating in the wild capture of cetaceans for display.

“Those commitments were enshrined in a park bylaw,” the statement continued. “That bylaw is due for review in 2015. The belugas and dolphins at Vancouver Aquarium receive exceptional care by a world-renowned professional team of scientists, curators and trainers led by a well-respected veterinarian. Further, the aquarium is the only facility in Canada that can rescue, rehabilitate and provide a long-term home to marine animals that are deemed non-releasable by appropriate government authorities.”

An expert in studying orcas in the wild says if the park board refuses to hold a referendum, a decision on keeping whales and dolphins at the aquarium should be made by a higher level of government.

Paul Spong, a neuroscientist, cetologist, former Vancouver Aquarium employee and one of the province’s foremost orca experts, said an attempt by a politician in California to introduce legislation banning the use of whales for entertainment and breeding in the state is an example of senior governments stepping in.

“That would have a huge impact on SeaWorld,” said Spong. “At this point in history it’s an outdated concept.”

The bill, recently introduced by Los Angeles–area state assembly member Richard Bloom, would have forced SeaWorld San Diego to stop using orcas in its shows. The facility keeps 10 orcas on site. But this week a hearing committee recommended the bill be subject to a detailed study before it comes to a vote, a process that could take up to a year.

During proceedings, Bloom told the media he was moved to introduce the bill after watching Blackfish.

The documentary follows the story of a 12,000-pound captive bull orca named Tilikum, which was involved in the deaths of three people, including a trainer at the now-defunct Sealand of the Pacific in Victoria in 1991.

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