By Tiffany Crawford
VANCOUVER — It could be weeks before the park board decides what to do about the controversial issue of whether to keep whales and dolphins in captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium.
A special weekend meeting on the issue will continue Monday evening, after more than 130 supporters and opponents of the issue registered to speak and didn’t all get a chance to voice their opinion on Saturday.
The park board is reviewing whether to keep cetaceans at the aquarium, an issue which has in the past drawn hundreds of protesters in Stanley Park, demanding an end to what they see as an inhumane practice.
Supporters say the aquarium’s research is integral to learning about the species and that all the cetaceans in captivity are rescued or injured mammals. They also contend that by visiting animals, young people become engaged and develop a passion for conservation.
While some opponents outside Saturday shed tears talking about the “pain” whales go through living in small tanks, supporters, like the aquarium’s head veterinarian
Martin Haulena, also became choked up when speaking to the park board about his love for the cetaceans and how well they are treated by staff at the aquarium.
Haulena said he becomes “shaken up” when he hears people talk about the mortality rates of animals at the aquarium. “Every animal under my care gets the very best attention,” he said.
Park board chair Aaron Jasper said he realizes this is a contentious and emotional issue and asked speakers to be calm and try not to get angry while others are talking.
During a break, Jasper admitted there are strong arguments on both sides and that it will be no easy task for park board commissioners to find a balance between the important research and rehabilitation the aquarium is engaged in and the public appetite to see the practice abolished.
“I’ve learned that you have to take your time when making crucial decision like this. I don’t think you can rush,” he said. “I think we need to give everyone their time whether it’s the aquarium or the public to come and share with us what their thoughts are.”
He said he hopes the park board can come to a conclusion before the aquarium begins Phase 2 of its $100 million dollar upgrade, which includes tank expansion. Phase 1 of the aquarium upgrades, which mainly focused on the entrance, has already been completed. But the next phase, set to be complete in 2017, is meant to include a new Arctic area with two pools for its beluga whales.
“If it was the decision of this board to say ‘no more whales that’s it.’ Well, obviously they will want to go back to the drawing board of that business plan,” said Jasper. “But whether they go ahead with expanding the tanks, the current ones have really come to the end of their life and need to be replaced.”
Dr. Joseph Gaydos, a practising wildlife veterinarian and chief scientist for the University of California Davis Wildlife Health Center’s SeaDoc Society Program, opened the meeting on Saturday, noting that of the 35 aquariums equal in size to Vancouver, only 12 keep cetaceans, and many jurisdictions have banned the display of cetaceans for entertainment, including India, Chile, Cyrus, Slovenia, South Carolina and Hawaii.
Gaydos released a report on Wednesday commissioned by the park board that found the city should consider a large-scale study on the welfare of captive whales, dolphins and porpoises to assess the ethics of housing cetaceans at the aquarium.
He said such a move, which would be similar to a current three-year project involving captive Asian and African elephants, “might be the next scientific step in assessing the complex societal issue of captive cetaceans.”
At the same time, he added, an annual report on the state of cetaceans at the aquarium — including everything from the number and species to births and deaths, as well as research projects — would also go a long way to ensure that the public feels that data is being shared.
At Saturday’s meeting, which ran from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., commissioner Constance Barnes questioned whether the beluga whales were suffering from stress being confined in a small space, and whether there is a way to quantify those stressors.
Gaydos said there are ways to study those stressors and that’s why further study is needed. “I do know there are ways to get answers to those questions.”
He said a much larger research effort will be needed to produce more substantial data that would permit detailed examination of animal care standards and the behavioural implications for housed cetaceans.
Many opponents to the captivity of cetaceans are upset because these large mammals are kept in tanks too small for such creatures to swim. Less than half a dozen protesters were outside the park board on Saturday holding placards with messages such as “empty the tanks” and “life in a tank is no life at all.”
For staunch opponent Cynthia Gantra, who was standing outside the park board holding a sign that read “captivity kills,” there is no question that the aquarium should not be allowed to keep whales and dolphins in tanks for entertainment.
She believes whales don’t live as long in captivity and says it makes her sad that their “psyches are being destroyed.”
“I think they shouldn’t be made to do tricks for dead fish,” she said.
Gantra supports rescuing injured cetaceans but says they should be kept in pens and then released. “If they can’t be released they need to be kept in large ocean pens and not in tanks for entertainment.”
Speaking to the commissioners in support of the aquarium, Heidi Harley, a psychologist at the New College of Florida, who studies cognition in bottle nose dolphins, said cetaceans at the aquarium are showing healthy, engaged behaviour. She worries that people think the whales and dolphins are wishing they were somewhere else, or out “surfing the waves,” for example.
“I don’t think they are pining for these things,” she said. “We just don’t have that evidence.”
The aquarium says it became the first in the world to stop the capture of wild cetaceans in 1996.
There is some controversy over the two dolphins acquired from Japan, because of the inhumane treatment of dolphins at drive fisheries in that country highlighted in the popular documentary The Cove.
But the aquarium says the Pacific white-sided dolphins Hana and Helen, acquired in 2005 from Japan, were both stranded and rescued from the Enoshima Aquarium. “Following lengthy recovery periods in Enoshima, both are now healthy, but were deemed non-releasable,” the aquarium states, on its website.
The debate has been ongoing for years but began to heat up in the spring when Mayor Gregor Robertson asked for the phasing out of whales and dolphins in captivity.
It’s also become an election issue, but the mayor and council voted in May against including the question of cetaceans in captivity to a referendum in this year’s civic election.