26 June 2014

Beluga battle: Vancouver Aquarium defends captive whales as good science

Amid calls that whales and dolphins in captivity are "cruel" - the Vancouver Aquarium showcases research aimed at improving belugas' lives in a warming Arctic

In a PR push apparently aimed at winning Vancouverites’ hearts and minds over a controversial beluga captivity program, the Vancouver Aquarium put forward its pioneering whale communication scientist for a media blitz to showcase why the whales are needed for important Arctic research.

“I am very proud of the research that we are doing,” said Dr. Valeria Vergara, who will be headed to the high Arctic next week to study the effects of melting ice and increased boat traffic on belugas.
“The long term acoustic communication research that was conducted here on the belugas in the aquarium is a real catalyst for research in the wild.” 

Vergara said years of listening to belugas at the aquarium’s whale tanks led to her discovery of one of the creature’s most important biological conversations – how a mother calls out to her baby calves. 
“At the aquarium, I discovered contact calls – this is essential, because we knew nothing of the function of the hundreds of calls that belugas produce.”

But in the wild, she said, that beluga communication is increasingly threatened by an explosion of loud ship traffic in the Arctic.  The number of vessels in the region has spiked 35 per cent since 2007, according to Canadian Coast Guard records.

“The [beluga] signals can very easily be masked by boat noise.  And an enormous amount of [Arctic] channels that were not navigable in the past are opening up to all sorts of oil and gas exploration activities, shipping, eco-tourism – even research – and belugas are acoustic animals and extremely sensitive to noise.” 

Despite the sheer vastness of the high north waters, belugas are loyal to little coves and estuaries, where ships might roam.
The aquarium in Stanley Park is home to two female belugas.  “Aurora” gave birth to her daughter “Qila” at the facility.  The aquarium only uses whales born in captivity, or those rescued from the wild but no longer deemed able to survive on their own.

Phasing out of belugas demanded

But several politicians, including Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and Councillor Adriane Carr have said they want the belugas and dolphins phased out.  Citizen’s groups have also pushed this idea for more than a decade.

“I believe the only reason the whales are kept in captivity is to make money, not to do research or conservation,” said Annelise Sorg, President of No Whales In Captivity.
“A water circus is not education.”

She said several aquaria worldwide have divested dolphins and whales.  The West Edmonton Mall rid itself of its dolphin shows after some of the creatures died, and a former Victoria public aquarium (that closed in 1992) also ended its orca program.

Former Green Party Park Board Commissioner Stuart Mackinnon has also long opposed cetaceans in captivity.

“These are highly evolved creatures, and to do experiments or to keep them in tiny pools is actually cruel.”

“I imagine [the beluga’s life in captivity] would be the same if they put you or myself in a basketball court for the rest of our lives, and never let us out.”

“These are creatures that in their natural habitat swim thousands of miles, and we’re putting them into a small pool.”

Mackinnon said research shows captivity gives whales handicaps, because of the small space where the creatures seem to circle endlessly.

An online petition to push the City hold a referendum on the captivity issue during the November 15th civic election now has 16,000 signatures.

Vergara said she wants what is best for the belugas – and for her, that means doing research aimed at improving their lives in the wild.

“I think the question to ask is how best to help beluga whales -- we all care about them.  We’re in this together, it shouldn’t be a dichotomy.”

“One of the things we can do is use the whales under human care as ambassadors for their wild counterparts, and one of the ways to do that is to do really good research,” said Vergara at a press conference Wednesday.

As a sign of how concerned the public aquarium is to public opposition, gleeful MCs – who oversee the daily belugas shows, where whales jump for fish and splash unsuspecting tourists – now invite visitors to contact politicians to let them know they support the institution’s work.

The aquarium’s website also has an e-mail sign-up form to facilitate letters of support to go to elected officials.  A social media campaign with the hashtag -- #ISupportVanAqua – is also promoted.
The aquarium is now building a $100 million expansion with public and private dollars.  But it's not clear if more whales will be part of that future.

The Vancouver Park Board must decide the fate of the whales and dolphins soon -- a bylaw regarding their captivity must be renewed next year.  The board has ordered staff to provide a report on best practices by July. 

In 1996, the Vancouver Aquarium became the first aquarium in the world to no longer capture whales and dolphins from the wild.  It ended its orca program in 2001.

The aquarium says it only keeps dolphins and whales that were:
  • captured before 1996
  • already being kept in a zoo or aquarium before 1996
  • born in a zoo or aquarium
  • rescued from the wild and rehabilitated, but deemed non-releasable by the government authorities

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