Coalition For No Whales in Captivity spokesperson Annelise Sorg has been pushing for a referendum on keeping whales and dolphins at the Vancouver Aquarium for 18 years, nine park boards, six civic elections and 30 park board commissioners.
So she wasn't surprised last month when the Vision Vancouver majority of park board commissioners voted down a motion by the Green Party's Stuart Mackinnon to hold a non-binding plebiscite on keeping captive cetaceans as part of the 2011 civic election. Mackinnon's motion followed the June death of Nala, the aquarium's one-year-old baby beluga, whose death was caused by a penny and several rocks trapped in an airway.
According to Vision Vancouver park board chair Aaron Jasper, such a move could put the park board at risk of a lawsuit should the aquarium decide to get litigious. That's because in 2006 the previous NPA-dominated park board extended the aquarium's lease for 20 years with a deal there'd be no discussion on captive cetaceans until 2015. At the same time, the NPA commissioners of the day quashed the previous COPE-dominated board's promise to hold a plebiscite on the issue.
And now, the aquarium is preparing to expand, once again, thanks to $15 million from the feds and $10 million from the province. The aquarium's expansion isn't news--the $80 million project was approved in 2006 without a public referendum. But it's notable that government funding was announced just weeks after Mackinnon's failed motion--and at a time when the park board has been forced to lay off staff and cut back on community centre programs, not to mention the school board forced to close schools due to budget cuts.
The NPA-dominated park board of 2006 approved the expansion based on a $300,000 survey paid for by the aquarium, which made many residents and some park board commissioners question the validity of the results. COPE commissioner Loretta Woodcock summed it up this way: "The public is being asked if they really like the aquarium expansion," said Woodcock at the time. "Or if they really, really like it."
What Mackinnon, Woodcock and many residents want now is a plebiscite that offers one simple yes-or-no question, such as "Should the aquarium phase out the containment of cetaceans in Stanley Park?"
Aquarium president John Nightingale explained that some of the work in the expansion includes vital repairs to infrastructure, such as the underwater wall and viewing window located underneath the B.C. Wild Coast exhibit, which opened in 2001. Nightingale said if that vital work isn't completed, the aquarium will have to drain that pool. He adds those improvements are interconnected with other work--for example the roof on that gallery will also have to come off and be replaced, changing the appearance of the building from the outside. The expansion has been broken up into eight separate yet connected projects to be completed in three phases.
I asked Nightingale if any of the improvements will change the way visitors view the whale, dolphin and sea lion pools in light of Nala's death, which many blame on humans tossing items into the cetaceans' pools. Just two weeks ago, the spouse of a Courier reporter was at the aquarium when a child tossed a purple wallet into the sea lion pool. Nightingale says that while changes to viewing areas aren't on the aquarium's to-do list, the final design has yet to be decided.
According to the book People, Fish and Whales: The Vancouver Aquarium Story by Murray Newman and Nightingale, the first aquarium expansion was in 1967. Subsequent expansions have taken place at regular intervals ever since. In 1995, the majority of NPA commissioners voted that any future expansion would go to referendum. But in 2006, another NPA-dominated board rescinded that promise. So the aquarium has been running the show ever since. Given the park board's history of flip-flopping, does anyone really expect a change in 2015? It's probably going to take Annelise Sorg at least another six civic elections and another 30 commissioners before the park board finally stands up and asks, "Should the aquarium phase out the containment of cetaceans in Stanley Park?"