Vancouver Aquarium’s breeding program under fire in new documentary
Published Tuesday, January 26, 2016 8:54PM PST
A new documentary is putting the Vancouver Aquarium’s controversial connections to SeaWorld and concerns over cetacean breeding back in the spotlight.
Gary Charbonneau’s film, Vancouver Aquarium Uncovered, explores the issues around loaning belugas to U.S. aquariums as well as the general practice of breeding belugas in captivity.
The filmmaker said breeding the animals has had an “astronomically high infant death rate,” and suggested the motivation is more to do with money than research and education.
“This is a business,” Charbonneau said. “There’s no educational value of captivity as it’s entertainment; teaching kids it’s OK to put creatures in a tank.”
The aquarium, which is a non-profit organization, defended its operations Tuesday, arguing much of Charbonneau’s documentary is simply false.
“It’s really forcing an agenda,” general manager Clint Wright said.
Wright defended the breeding of cetaceans, which was the subject of intense scrutiny in 2014 when the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation considered banning the practice, as a necessary part of aquarium operations.
Observing and studying cetaceans such as belugas is crucial to meeting the facility’s research and conservation goals, he said, which are particularly pressing given the various threats associated with climate change.
“It’s absolutely essential that we have these animals here. We want to keep them in as natural a group as we can, we have males and females together, we are going to have mating,” he said.
“One of the ways we will continue to have belugas here into the future is that calves will be born, we expect that.”
When animals are loaned to U.S. aquariums it’s partly so they won’t mate with their own offspring, he added.
Charbonneau’s documentary also suggests that staff from Vancouver helped the Georgia Aquarium in an effort to import 18 wild belugas that were hunted and captured off the coast of Russia. That application was denied last year.
“I questioned the aquarium about that but they basically wanted to be silent on that issue,” Charbonneau said. “We found out they went behind the public’s back to aid the Georgia Aquarium.”
The aquarium denies having any involvement, however.
The crux of Charbonneau’s case is one document, an addendum to the Georgia Aquarium’s application, that names the Vancouver Aquarium on a list of facilities whose animal care staff were involved in a meeting on social groupings.
Wright said the facility offered “no assistance” to the Georgia Aquarium’s attempt to import captured belugas, and that staff made that clear to Charbonneau while he was researching his movie.
“We opened our doors to him, with a bit of trepidation because we knew he had an agenda, but we felt that we wanted to be completely open and honest,” Wright said. “He chose to ignore a lot of what we gave him.”
Wright said the aquarium stands by the 1996 commitment it signed pledging not to capture cetaceans from the wild, and only accepts and cares for whales, dolphins and porpoises that were born in an aquarium or rescued.
The current Vancouver park board said there’s been no recent discussion on the issue of whale breeding, and that none are planned.
With a report from CTV Vancouver’s Scott Roberts