Vancouver Aquarium to phase out cetaceans in captivity by 2029

Despite the mysterious death of two belugas in November, the Vancouver Aquarium intends to bring up to five of the animals back to its tanks when a massive expansion exhibit opens in two years. However, they will phase out captivity of cetaceans by 2029 and in the meantime will focus on research but not breeding.

A virus or toxin is the suspected cause of the Nov. 25 death of Aurora, who was 30, and was the first beluga to conceive and give birth in captivity in Canada. Her calf, 21-year-old Qila, died nine days before her.

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The aquarium’s lead veterinarian did not rule out poisoning and opened the door for speculation about intentional wrong-doing.

"Right now we have no obvious sign of mortality,” said Martin Haulena on Monday. “I will stress that nothing is off the table now.”

Early necropsy reports do not reveal a definitive cause of death, but Haulena said the older beluga showed signs of significant liver damage. He said early tests have ruled out bacterial and fungal causes.

Aquarium president and CEO, John Nightingale said the deaths appear to be connected given the sudden onset and similar symptoms. Cetaceans will not return to the same tank where Aurora and Qila fell ill and died until a cause of death is identified, he said. The aquarium has six cetaceans on loan at marine parks across North America.

The Vancouver Park Board, which leases land to the aquarium, is reviewing its policies about whales and cetaceans in captivity. A special meeting is scheduled for March 8.

The aquarium’s public relations team also published a 10-point list of its professional conservation goals and mandate, which it argues justifies keeping cetaceans at its facilities, as a rebuttal to being “attacked by a network of animal rights groups.”

Later that day at the park board meeting, a group of eight speakers wearing “No More Dead Cetaceans” addressed commissioners in response to the aquarium press conference. 

“We expect you guys to do something now. We are not going anywhere,” one speaker said. “Why would you bring [cetaceans] in if you’re phasing out captivity?”

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