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

22 June 2014

Letter of the week: I’ll vote based on my dream for a far better Vancouver

The Province June 22, 2014. • Section: Opinion

Imagine a better city. Imagine a civic government that engaged citizens as partners rather than adversaries. Imagine a city where the civil service is empowered to speak out and speak with taxpayers. Imagine a city where civil discourse and debate is respectful of all, regardless of your point of view. Idealistic? Not possible? Dreaming? No. Many cities in Canada and around the world have civic governments that work by consensus and respect rather than adversary and insult. Vancouver can too.

I think of a city government that focuses on civic issues, issues that matter to the residents and are within the purview of the city charter. I think of a city government that isn’t built on elected officials beholden to developer donors who pay for campaigns with their deep pockets. I think of a civic government that puts people first and focuses on community development.

I want a city that moves people by engaging them, not demonizing them. There is room for pedestrians, bicycles, and cars in our city. Demeaning one group isn’t helpful. Can you imagine a city that couldn’t move goods and services? Our road network is necessary for transportation of goods, services and people. It has to be accessible to all.

Envisage a city that focuses on the root causes of poverty and helps those who, for whatever reason, can’t help themselves, with an integrated housing, health, and education plan. A city that has affordable housing for everyone.

I imagine a beautiful city with parks and gardens open to all. A city where children, families, elders, and youth can play in their own neighbourhoods. Where summer outdoor swimming is as close as a public library or community centre should be.

I can imagine such a city. I can imagine that this city is Vancouver. In five months, the citizens of Vancouver will choose what kind of a city they want. I’ll be choosing a better city.

Stuart Mackinnon, former Vancouver park board commissioner

The editorial pages editor is Gordon Clark, who can be reached at gclark@theprovince.com. Letters to the editor can be sent to provletters@theprovince.com.

20 June 2014

Will the Seniors Centre be the loser with all the political bickering?

Last night the Southeast Vancouver Seniors Arts and Cultural Society held its AGM at Killarney Community Centre. The SVSACS is the community organization pressing for a Seniors Centre attached to the Killarney Community Centre. With contributions from all 3 levels of government totalling close to 10 million dollars, the centre should be well on its way to being built.

What should have been a time of celebration turned into a political spat between different levels of government and a he said/she said squabble that simply alienated most members of the association in attendance. Conservative MP Wai Young, BC Liberal MLA Susan Anton and Vision Vancouver Counsellor Raymond Louie seemed more interested in scoring petty political points off of each other than answering the real questions of the seniors. Questions like why hasn’t there been real consultation with the community and the stakeholders? When will the shovels be in the ground? And when will the doors finally open?

In a truly bizarre exchange with Keith Jacobs, former President of the Killarney Community Centre Association, who asked for real consultation with the stakeholders, Cllr Louie replied that consultation would take more time, but if the community wanted to wait while they were consulted then that could be done.

This kind of passive/aggressive answer has no place in the discussion of this important amenity in the Southeast sector of the city. Of course there should be consultation. There should have been consultation all along. But for Cllr Louie to threaten a slowdown because the community wants input is a shameful abuse of his authority.

The Conservative MP and BC Liberal MLA were no better with their finger pointing and holier-than-thou attitudes towards the City. Surely all levels of government can put away their partisan politics to do some good for our seniors. Surely for the sake of our elders we can work together and can all come out as winners.

It’s time to put politics aside and work for the common good.

Proposed park by Fraser River a ‘100-year opportunity’

Salmon streams or bus parkade?

Stanley Tromp / Vancouver Courier
June 20, 2014 11:07 AM
 Terry Slack would like to see a vacant industrial lot turned into a new park. photo Dan Toulgoet 

Terry Slack has a vision. The veteran fisherman wants the city to establish a 10-acre park with a salmon stream and bird habitat at the foot of Cambie Street by the Fraser River.

Beneath the concrete vacant land owned by TransLink, south of the train tracks at Kent Street and between Laurel and Cambie streets, are three short underground streams that few people know of. Water trickles up from cracks in the concrete, once home to a former sawmill and still zoned industrial, to form a large pond with ducks, bulrushes and Black cottonwood plants.

“Look how clean the water is,” said Slack. “Kids could wade in it, you could bottle it. We want to daylight the streams, dig up the old pipes, and let the water run free. Then when the salmon come back up the river, looking for a place to spawn, we can put gravel down in the stream and hope within five years we’ll have a spawning ground. In the spring the young fish will return to the river.”
Because these are “short streams” that start at Kent Street and not the headwaters to flow into the Fraser, Slack said it would not cost much to set up the project, which could be funded from the $27 million in amenities set aside in the new Marpole Plan.

Mayor Gregor Robertson told the Courier he likes Slack’s idea.

“There is a compelling case for using street ends that the city controls to create salmon habitat along the river edge. Council has given direction for a 10 acre park to be created by the river, as part of the Marpole Plan. Staff are pursuing all options to see we get it done, but we are not certain of the exact location yet.”

City councillors Heather Deal, George Affleck and Adriane Carr also support the plan.

The 21-acre industrial site is owned by TransLink, who has no immediate plans to sell the land.
“The site is intended to be used as a future bus facility,” said Derrick Cheung, TransLink’s vice-president of real estate. “The mandate for the park is that of local government. At this time, we are not selling the land and we have not listed the land for sale, therefore, have not received any solicited offers on the site.”

Gord Ruffo, program manager for Port Metro Vancouver’s habitat enhancement program, said Port environmental experts toured the area with Slack.

“There may be an opportunity there, but this is a very early stage,” said Ruffo. “We’d keep an eye on his idea, because there are few intertidal marsh benches left in the Fraser River estuary.”
Ruffo added that the Port leased the north arm of the river for some years from the B.C. government, but it reverts back to provincial control at the end of this year.

“This is 100-year opportunity because the land is vacant,” said Slack. “This is a little jewel sitting on a hunk of concrete.”

© Vancouver Courier