11 June 2017

Opinion: Cetaceans do not belong in aquariums

Catherine Evans
Vancouver Sun June 10, 2017

It is perfectly legitimate to debate the ongoing relevance of established democratic institutions, and I — as an elected Vancouver park board commissioner — welcome constructive criticism of our deliberations and decisions.

To suggest, however, as The Vancouver Sun has done in a recent editorial, that the park board be abolished because of its recent vote to expand the ban on displaying cetaceans in Stanley Park is to ignore mounting public, scientific and ethical considerations.

For the past several decades, the park board has provided a public forum for Vancouver’s residents to debate the captivity and display of whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Elected commissioners representing Vancouverites from across the political spectrum have sought opinions from citizens, the scientific community, and the Vancouver Aquarium on many, many occasions.

The most recent and decisive debate, however, was a surprise. Given what was assumed about the makeup of the current park board, I for one, did not expect to see the issue on the agenda. But that was before the deaths of the belugas Aurora and Qila at the end of 2016 and the death of Jack the harbour porpoise in August 2016. With these deaths, the ethical issues surrounding the aquarium’s practice of holding cetaceans in captivity came roaring back.

In March, the park board held two open public meetings. There was passion and science on both sides — as there usually is in major moral debates. We heard presentations from over 60 speakers. Many brought or referenced research papers. At the end of those meetings, the park board voted unanimously to develop a bylaw to expand the 2001 orca ban to include all cetaceans.

This bylaw was drafted and then debated on May 15. Board members agreed that it should exempt the cetaceans housed in Stanley Park from the ban. The bylaw passed by a vote of 6-1.

The timing of the bylaw is significant. The Vancouver Aquarium was planning to start a major expansion of its tanks to house some or all of the five or six belugas it has loaned out to aquariums in the United States, largely for breeding purposes. Passing the bylaw now allows the aquarium to rethink its expansion and move in a direction that is more sustainable over the long term.

There is a mistaken assumption in some quarters that the park board became captive to a small group of activists. This does not bear scrutiny. We are far from homogeneous with three political parties and one independent around the table. And it is not a small group that believes the time of cetacean captivity is over. There are some passionate activists to be sure, but we also received correspondence from nearly 15,000 individuals in support of the bylaw.
We have also had letters opposed to our decision and I have read them carefully. Most are worried about the ability of the aquarium to continue its work in the rescue and rehabilitation of sea mammals. While some writers express a personal unease about the display of captive cetaceans, they believe that the ban on displaying cetaceans in Stanley Park is a serious threat to future rescue efforts. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Aquarium’s Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre is not in Stanley Park. The aquarium is free to bring whatever animals it wants into its Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre. Historically, this has been around 99 per cent harbour seals, almost all of which are released.

The fact is that there have been only six cetaceans brought into the rescue centre since 2011. Five were harbour porpoises, one a false killer whale. Of the five porpoises, three died, one was treated and released (the only cetacean to ever be released from the rescue centre) and one, Jack, was brought into the aquarium in 2011 as an infant. He died there in 2016.

The false killer whale, Chester, was brought into the aquarium as an infant in 2014.  He lives there with Daisy, a harbour porpoise rescued as an infant in 2008, and Hana, a Pacific white-sided dolphin, caught in fishing nets and transferred from an aquarium in Japan.
The aquarium knows from its own public opinion polling that their rescue and rehabilitation program is widely supported. They also know that support for the display of captive cetaceans has dropped significantly and is now well below the 50 per cent mark. Blurring the lines between the two has been the goal of the public relations campaign they have been engaged in for the past month.

No one is questioning the opinion of Fisheries and Oceans Canada that the cetaceans currently held by the aquarium should not be released. But I am surprised more people do not see the conflict of interest in the aquarium’s position. After the aquarium agreed to stop importing wild caught cetaceans in 1996, their only real source of cetaceans for use in their shows has been through rescue and breeding. The latter has largely failed, and the former, while it saved three wild infant cetaceans from imminent death, condemned them to a lifetime (a short lifetime in Jack’s case) of unnatural social interactions in an artificial and confined environment.

Nobody likes being told what to do. The aquarium may feel like this is what has happened. But, they won’t change of their own volition. Like other zoos and aquariums that have changed the way they deal with animals, the Vancouver Aquarium has always been backed into making changes. It is public opinion that is driving this change, expressed in this instance by the decision of a publicly-elected body with legislative authority over what animals may be brought into Vancouver parks.

It would have been better for the aquarium to have got ahead of the park board on this decision as it did with the wild caught ban in 1996. They then could boast as do many other very successful and popular aquariums that they do not hold captive cetaceans. And they could create a terrific educational program explaining why it is wrong to keep these complex, social, far-ranging and deep-diving wild animals in small enclosures.

I hope they come around to this understanding and do not waste money on litigation. They could use the money they may spend fighting the cetacean ban in court so much better. For example, they could collaborate with Vancouver’s digital community to wow their visitors with a technological experience of the majesty of cetaceans in the wild.
It’s time for the Vancouver Aquarium to move on and once again be applauded around the world, without reservation, for its leadership in understanding and caring for oceanic animals.

• Catherine Evans is a Vision Vancouver commissioner elected to the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation.

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