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Whales, dolphins will no longer be displayed at Vancouver Aquarium

Last Updated Jan 19, 2018 at 9:40 am EDT

Beluga whale Qila leaps out of the water at the Vancouver Aquarium in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday, June 25, 2014. The Vancouver Aquarium has announced that it will no longer display whales or dolphins. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER – Whales, dolphins and porpoises will no longer be kept at Vancouver’s aquarium, a move that animal advocates say is a step toward the end of cetaceans in captivity.

The Vancouver Aquarium announced Thursday that is ending the display of cetaceans following a long and controversial battle with animal activists and the city’s park board over the issue.

“We made (the decision) because the controversy, the distraction, the dialogue in the community had begun to limit our ability to pursue our ocean conservation mission,” said John Nightingale, the aquarium’s CEO and president.

“Cetaceans were with us here for 50 years, so there’s a variety of emotions, as you can imagine, among many of our staff and board members and supporters. But the universal urge to get on with things is the driving force.”

Peter Fricker of the Vancouver Humane Society said the decision is a major victory for animal welfare.

“I think it’s clear that keeping animals in captivity has lost public support and we’re hopeful that trend continues and that animal captivity will eventually become a thing of the past,” he said.

Camille Labchuk with Animal Justice said in a statement the move shows the “writing is on the wall for the whale and dolphin captivity industry.”

Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ont., is believed to be the only other Canadian facility with cetaceans. The park has dolphins and what it says is the “largest collection of beluga whales in the world.”

Fricker said he hopes the Vancouver Aquarium’s decision will encourage Marineland to phase out their whale and dolphin program, too.

“I certainly think that it’s another nail in the coffin for cetacean captivity,” he said.

Marineland said it continues to actively expand its park, adding that its beluga whales are well cared for.

“Our whales are thriving, healthy and active. The Beluga whale program at Marineland is the finest in the world,” it said in a statement.

“Access to exhibits of Arctic animals at Marineland or the Vancouver Aquarium are a critical resource for educators, scientists and families and a part of our national heritage for all Canadians to view and appreciate.”

Debate over the future of whales, dolphins and porpoises at the Vancouver Aquarium has been simmering for several years, but heated up after the deaths of two belugas in November 2016.

A young false killer whale and a harbour porpoise have also died at the aquarium in recent months.

The aquarium previously announced plans to phase out its cetacean program by 2029, but first wanted to bring in five new belugas.

Those plans were scuttled last May when the Vancouver Park Board approved a bylaw prohibiting the aquarium from bringing any new cetaceans to its facility in Stanley Park.

Staff argued the regulations would hinder research and efforts to save and rehabilitate injured and orphaned cetaceans.

The park board issued a statement applauding the aquarium’s decision.

“The public told us they believed the continuing importation and display of these intelligent and sociable mammals was unethical and incompatible with evolving public opinion and we amended our bylaws accordingly,” said chair Stuart Mackinnon. “We look forward to working with the Vancouver Aquarium as it intensifies its focus on … research and conservation.”

Nightingale said the aquarium will continue pursuing a judicial review of the bylaw because the fundamental question is not about animals, but the powers of a government body.

“You can imagine the implications of that reach far beyond whales and dolphins and reach far beyond our organization,” he said.

The park board did not comment on the judicial review.

The aquarium will also continue its work saving wild animals, including cetaceans, and wants to be able to use its facilities in Stanley Park for that purpose when necessary, Nightingale said.

That could mean whales, dolphins or porpoises end up in the aquarium’s tanks for short periods while a permanent home is found, he added.

“We do want to be able to, on a case-by-case basis, from time to time, use the extraordinary and large facilities at the aquarium in that process, if deemed necessary by (Fisheries Canada) and veterinarians.”

Nightingale said an exception from the new policy will also be made for the facility’s single remaining cetacean, a Pacific white-sided dolphin named Helen.

Staff want to do what’s best for Helen and that means she should live with others of her kind, but the animal is believed to be in her 30s and moving her could present health complications, he said.

For now, Helen will remain at the aquarium, living in the same pool while staff consider her future.

Cetaceans owned by the aquarium that are on loan to other facilities will stay where they are for now, he added.