The Vancouver park board has voted unanimously to ban the city’s aquarium from letting cetaceans breed.
The Parks Control bylaw amendment was approved Thursday evening during the third special meeting this week on the issue of keeping whales and dolphins at the facility.
Vancouver Aquarium CEO John Nightingale said he’s disappointed by the decision, and unsure how his staff will be expected to enforce it.
“We don’t operate a formal breeding program. We keep animals together in natural groups, just as they exist in nature, and healthy animals sometimes mate,” Nightingale said.
“Keeping them apart or using artificial contraceptives, or whatever method the park board is going to mandate, is not natural, so it’s actually kind of animal cruelty.”
The bylaw will still allow cetacean breeding if the species is threatened and it’s deemed necessary for its survival.
Members of the board expressed concerns that cetaceans born at the aquarium have ended up in facilities outside its jurisdiction, including five living at SeaWorld parks in the U.S. and two at a Georgia aquarium.
“We could not square away the breeding program with [the Vancouver Aquarium’s] rehabilitation program or their research program,” chair Aaron Jasper said. “That’s where we drew the line in the sand.”
Board members also voted to establish an oversight committee that will be tasked with preparing bi-annual reports on the well-being of cetaceans in the aquarium’s care.
Nightingale said the aquarium already has an animal care committee that operates under Canadian Council on Animal Care guidelines, and that outside oversight could threaten its ongoing conservation work. The facility’s Coastal Research Institute and Aquatic Education Institute programs have already been stymied by the heated captivity debate, he added.
“Those are programs that have been dead in the water the past four months thanks to this process,” Nightingale said.
“It’s a time in human history when we need more science and more conservation work, not less.”
Bylaws allowing the aquarium to keep cetaceans and obtain new ones, provided they were rescued and can’t be released back into the wild, remain in place, but its been asked to consider viable alternatives to exhibiting whales and dolphins.
An independent report commissioned by the park board that was released last week warned that the aquarium’s research and rescue work could be compromised without its whale and dolphin programs.
"They would no longer be able to use captive cetaceans to learn information that could benefit the management and conservation of free-ranging cetaceans," it said.
Since the captivity issue started gaining traction in April, high-profile proponents have come forward on both sides.
Four previous Vancouver mayors – Mike Harcourt, Larry Campbell, Philip Owen and Sam Sullivan – have penned open letters supporting the aquarium’s programs, while Mayor Gregor Robertson has expressed his hope to phase out the keeping of cetaceans.