The park board made an unambiguous, heartfelt and historic statement across party lines that public tolerance has waned for holding whales, dolphins and porpoises in captivity for either entertainment or research purposes.
After two days of special hearings, on Thursday night commissioners voted unanimously to amend bylaws that govern public parks and instructed staff to report back on prohibiting the importation and display of live cetaceans at the Vancouver aquarium. That report will go before the board in the spring.
The decision came after the aquarium announced it intended to feature up to five beluga in a multi-million dollar expansion exhibit and labelled plans to phase out cetacean displays by 2029 “a compromise” in light of a park board motion to consider a plebiscite on the topic.
However, the November death of two beluga, Aurora and her adult calf Qila, was cited by one commissioner as a “tipping-point” that not only thrust the debate back into the public conscious but was ultimately more compelling than the aquarium’s argument the animals were essential to scientific study and conservation efforts.
As non-partisan and united as the politicians ultimately appeard on this issue, the viewing gallery was not only divided and often tense but also loud. By the end of two day of presentations, each speaker was met with a round of applause from one side or the other.
Activists wearing black t-shirts reading "No More Dead Cetaceans" were quick to jump to their feet and sometimes directly address the CEO of the aquarium, John Nightingale, who sat nearby.
After hearing from more than 50 speakers, Green commissioner Stuart Mackinnon got right to the point and proposed the motion that was eventually adopted by the Green, NPA, Vision and independent politicians that comprise the seven-person board.
The unanimous mandate “absolutely” surprised him, he said.
“We have a group of commissioners here who are caring, compassionate, smart, and do their homework,” he said after the decision. “We don’t alway agree […] but did it surprise me that it was unanimous? Absolutely.”
In his argument before the board, Mackinnon laid out previous political attempts to limit the display of animals and cetaceans in Vancouver, beginning in 1993 when a public vote — with a 53 per cent majority — elected to close the zoo in Stanley Park. Three years later, an NPA majority park board tried to curb the aquarium expansion and in 2005, a majority COPE board decided to hold a referendum on cetaceans in captivity. However, both actions were halted by the next board and its NPA majority.
“Now it is 2017 and we are here again,” he said at the board table.
In fact, the debate about cetaceans in captivity is one of the main issues that spurred Mackinnon into civic politics in the first place, he said. In 2010, as a park board commissioner, he put the issue before the board but did not make any gains at that time.
This time, the political and public will had firmly shifted.
In a scathing statement, Mackinnon said he was further spurred to reach his conclusion because of the entitlement shown by some aquarium staff and leaders.
“We had an employee of the aquarium tell us only they know what is best, only they are working on conservation, only they have the best interests of the animals in mind,” he said. “I find this arrogance intolerable. But I find this arrogance runs right from the top of this organization. We have heard contempt and arrogance for years.”
He said he supports scientific endeavour and conservation efforts, but also said science is not inherently good if it is used by bad-intentioned administrations for selfish gains. “In the last century, both the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese Army committed atrocities in the name of science.”
Despite the criticism, Mackinnon said he had full confidence in the aquarium to deliver important and compelling exhibits on marine life and ocean conservation without the use of captive cetaceans.
His motion was seconded by the NPA’s Sarah Kirby-Yung, who had initially brought the topic to the table by suggesting the board consider a plebiscite, which remained one of four political options.
One after another, the commissioners announced their support for an outright ban.
Before the vote was officially held, the CEO and president of the Vancouver aquarium stood from his seat in the gallery and walked out the door. John Nightingale declined interviews, but the aquarium communications staff had readied a written prepared statement.
“For an enduring community organization founded by Vancouver residents, we feel the true essence of the topic was lost in the conversation,” the release said. “While we debate the value of caring for and studying beluga whales, there is no debating that we are experiencing the biggest mass extinction since the age of the dinosaurs.”
He praised the energy and ideas of dedicated marine researchers and biologists along with thousands of volunteers. “Despite recent challenges, my hope is that we all continue to do our part to slow down the impact we’re having on the planet.”
Before the vote was officially counted, Nightingale stood and left the gallery.
He exited out the back door toward the parking lot and did not stop for interviews. However, communications staff were prepared with printed copies of a prepared statement.
In terms of amending park board by-laws, staff will return with a report by May 15, 2017. In addition to considering financial and legal implications, the park board may consider the fate of the five beluga still owned by the aquarium now on loan at marine parks across North America.