Demonstrators gathered outside the Vancouver Aquarium in protest two days before the park board votes on whether to amend city's bylaw on live whales and dolphins in captivity.

For the fifth straight year, a group gathered outside the Stanley Park facility as part of a global movement called Empty the Tanks.

Animal rights activists use the event to call on aquariums and marine parks to release all cetaceans held captive for research, education or entertainment, something an organizer told The Canadian Press was particularly poignant in Vancouver this week.

On Monday, the Vancouver Park Board will vote on amendments to its bylaw governing the display of cetaceans in captivity specifically the venue of Saturday's protest.

The park board issued a draft of its proposed cetacean ban on Wednesday, changes to the bylaw that were prompted by the deaths of the aquarium's resident beluga whales in November.

The board voted unanimously in March to amend its bylaws following discussions with aquarium staff, the public and experts in the marine science field.

The current bylaw stipulates that no cetaceans captured or taken from the wild be kept in captivity unless:

  • It was caught prior to September 1996;
  • It was living in a park prior to September 1996;
  • It is a member of an endangered species, and approval has been obtained by the board;
  • It has been injured or in distress and is in need of assistance or rehabilitation to survive, regardless of whether the plan is to release it after treatment

The board will vote at a meeting on May 15 on amendments to the above section that include a new clause that "no person shall produce or present in a park a show, performance, or other form of entertainment which includes one or more cetaceans."

The amendments stipulate that the three cetaceans (a false killer whale, porpoise and white-sided dolphin) currently housed at the aquarium could remain on display, but cannot be included in shows or performances of any kind. The trio would be permitted to stay at the aquarium, but no new cetaceans would be permitted.

If the bylaw amendments are approved at the meeting next week, they will become effective immediately. The full report is available online.

Park board commissioners said they anticipate their decision could be challenged in court, but they believe the ban is firmly within their mandate.

The aquarium is operating in the park, which is on federal land but falls under the exclusive jurisdiction of the board, on a 60-year lease that ends in 2029. It is also in the midst of a $100-million planned update that includes a $20-million expansion of its beluga habitat – a project that was greenlit by the park board.

Vancouver Aquarium CEO John Nightingale issued a statement following the report saying staff members "find it incomprehensible" that the board would impose a ban on rescuing animals.

"We are devastated that the Park Board would turn its back on vulnerable cetaceans at a time when they need our help the most," he said in the statement.

He said the ban on cetaceans in captivity could mean that animals brought in by its Marine Mammal Rescue Program and deemed unfit for re-release may have to be put down, with nowhere else to go. The rescue centre is the only facility in Canada with the resources and experts needed to care for rescued cetaceans, Nightingale said.

The vast majority of the 100-plus marine mammals saved annually by the program are eventually released, but some are kept in captivity because their injuries were assessed as too severe or they weren't able to develop basic survival skills.

The board said Tuesday it "continues to express its support for the important and excellent work" by the aquarium and its Marine Mammal Research Centre. It said the amendments would have little effect on the research centre, as most of the rescued animals are harbour seals.

"As confirmed by the aquarium, cetaceans represent a tiny percentage of all the marine mammals rescued since the program began," the board's statement said.

Nightingale called it contradictory to praise the research centre in the same statement as the details of the proposed amendments.

"The rescue program is governed by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). Its scientists ultimately decide if a stranded whale, dolphin or porpoise may be rescued, and if it may be reintroduced to the wild after our rescue team has provided tens of thousands of hours of intensive care rehabilitating the animal," he said.

Nightingale said more than 12,000 people have submitted letters to the park board and Vancouver City Council urging the board to reconsider its position.

With files from CTV Vancouver's Andrew Weichel