Column: Aquarium controversy not so cut and dry

Keeping these highly intelligent, sensitive, far-roaming animals in something akin to a bathtub has raises troubling ethical issues.

There’s a showdown coming between the Vancouver Public Aquarium and the City of Vancouver Park Board. The anti-captive whale folks have been beating their chests that the facility should no longer keep their belugas and white sided dolphins and that the policy of captive whales should be phased out.

This debate is not new and, to be fair, it is a legitimate discussion. Keeping these highly intelligent, sensitive, far-roaming animals in something akin to a bathtub has raises troubling ethical issues for decades among both the general public and marine mammal experts alike. And it has increased exponentially as the public has become better educated about the natural life of whales not only from television documentaries but from the conservation and education program offered by the aquarium and the increasingly popular whale boat tours.

This week the debate comes to a head as the Vancouver Park Board considers a review of the aquarium’s operations and discusses whether the practice of keeping whales in captivity should be phased out. The question could go to a public referendum this year.

All this comes at a time when the aquarium is in the midst of a major $100 million expansion not only to the pools but also the facility’s aging infrastructure. The expansion was in the planning stages for over a decade and was subject to considerable public consultation in 2006. With strong public support, the Vancouver Park Board approved the expansion which will see new and improved aquatic habitats. These will allow the return of beluga whales that had been loaned out to other accredited aquariums in advance of construction.

The Vancouver Aquarium is a world class facility and the care of its animals is exemplary. It is a leader in research, conservation, and education. Its policies in breeding and captivity are ahead of the curve. And it was the first aquarium in the world to make a commitment in 1996 to no longer capture whales and dolphins from the wild.

The decision was to only exhibit those animals already being kept in an aquarium prior to 1996, cetaceans that were born in a zoo or aquarium, or cetaceans that had been rescued and rehabilitated but were non-releasable because of permanent injury.

According to the aquarium’s website, the last dolphin captured for display was in 1971 and the last cetacean of any kind was captured in 1990 when Aurora, the beluga, joined the ranks.

As for Helen and Hana, the two white sided dolphins, they came to the aquarium as badly injured animals from fixed fishing nets on the east coast of Japan. Contrary to what some claim, they did not come as a result of the Japanese drive fisheries, a practice condemned by accredited aquariums across North America.

Helen and Hana, while rehabilitated, are not releasable. But they are contributing to research to help scientists understand how dolphins perceive nets. The results could lead to the development of dolphin-safe nets in the future. In addition, constant monitoring of cetacean health adds to the data the aquarium has gathered over the decades which could provide insights into better conservation policies given the changing climatic conditions in the wild belugas’ Arctic habitat.

Among the highlights of the aquarium’s work have been the rescue, rehabilitation and release of injured marine mammals, most notably and most recently the harbour porpoise, Levi.

The aquarium hosts over a million visitors a year, many drawn to the icon cetacean inhabitants. But the Park Board may decide in its wisdom (or lack thereof), that cetaceans must go. Since they can’t be returned to the wild, they would have to be traded off elsewhere.

That would be a very bad move.

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