Vancouver Aquarium launches legal proceedings over cetacean ban

The Vancouver Aquarium launched legal proceedings Wednesday to try and overturn a Vancouver Park Board bylaw amendment that bans cetaceans from its marine science centre in the future.

The aquarium applied for a judicial review in B.C. Supreme Court, naming the park board and the City of Vancouver as the respondents.

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It wants the court to rule that the park board’s bylaw amendment, which was enacted on May 15, 2017, is "invalid and of no force and effect."

The park board voted to ban whales and dolphins at the aquarium in a unanimous decision March 9 following two days of special hearings. More than 50 speakers spoke for and against the ban.

At a press conference the next day, John Nightingale, president and CEO, Vancouver Aquarium, said he was "deeply disappointed" by the decision.

On May 15, the park board voted to not only uphold a ban against the importation of new cetaceans to city parks but also to strengthen that ban through a bylaw amendment prohibiting performances.  

The amendment, approved in a 6-1 decision with only commissioner Erin Shum in opposition, meant the three cetaceans currently at the aquarium — a Pacific white-sided dolphin, harbour porpoise and a false killer whale — would be allowed to stay in the Stanley Park tourist attraction but can't perform for public entertainment. It also prohibited the addition of any more cetaceans than the three that currently live there.  

At the time, Nightingale said it could mean job losses and restructuring at the aquarium, which hosted a record 1.2 million visitors last year and planned to phase out some cetacean displays on its own timeline by 2029.

The aquarium's court filing on June 14 argues:

  • the park board doesn’t have the statutory power to enact the bylaw amendment
  • that park board commissioners refused to hear representations from the Vancouver Aquarium concerning the bylaw amendment because they had made up their minds well before May 15
  • that the language of the park board’s bylaw amendment is unacceptably vague
  • that the bylaw amendment means the remaining phases of the Vancouver Aquarium’s approved $100-million revitalization and expansion project obsolete.

The aquarium says $45 million of public and private funding has already been invested in the project. 

“The ramifications and impacts of the Park Board bylaw amendment are so far reaching that they fundamentally change the Vancouver Aquarium’s ability to deliver its mission of conserving the world’s oceans. As a result, we have no choice but to defend ourselves,” Nightingale said in a press release issued June 15.

The aquarium maintains the ban’s adverse effects include the loss of a long-term home for rescued, non-releasable cetaceans. It argues that its rescue program is the only one of its kind in Canada with the facilities, accreditation and expertise to provide ongoing care for sick and stranded whales, dolphins and porpoises that Fisheries and Oceans Canada deems to be unfit for release following rescue and rehabilitation.  

The ban also means the loss of funds to operate the marine mammal rescue program, according to the aquarium, the loss of expertise related to cetacean stranding response and veterinary care, impacts to its ability to advance scientific knowledge for the rescue, rehabilitation and conservation of whales, dolphins and porpoises in the wild and harm arising to the aquarium’s staff from the risk of quasi-criminal sanctions.

“We cannot stand by and allow the Park Board to threaten the health and welfare of cetaceans, or develop bylaws on the fly that undermine our animal protection, conservation, research and education mandates,” Nightingale stated.

— with files from Megan Stewart

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