The Vancouver Aquarium will no longer keep whales and dolphins in captivity, officials said Thursday, because public controversy over the practice is hindering its conservation work.
CEO John Nightingale said the Ocean Wise Conservation Association, which runs the aquarium, will continue to promote programs which highlight the threats to marine mammals.
“The ongoing discussions about whales and dolphins in our care have been a distraction from real threats to the ocean and have sidelined the critical work we lead,” Nightingale wrote in a blog post.
Last spring, the Vancouver Park Board banned new cetaceans – whales, dolphins and porpoises – at the popular Stanley Park facility. Since the park board vote, two of the aquarium's three remaining cetaceans have died, leaving only Helen, a Pacific white-sided dolphin. Helen has only partial flippers after being rescued from a fishing net in Japan in 2005 and will not be released to the wild.
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In a statement, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums said it was “disappointing” that the public would no longer be able to “experience the magnificent creatures of the ocean up close” at the Vancouver Aquarium.
But Thursday’s announcement was cheered by environmental groups that had joined the legal challenge against the aquarium. “Huge win for whales!” said Animal Justice in a tweet.
Camille Labchuk, an attorney and executive director of Animal Justice, called the aquarium’s decision “a tremendous victory for the thousands of compassionate citizens who stood up against the cruel practice of keeping smart, sentient whales and dolphins imprisoned in tiny tanks.”
Five cetaceans died at the aquarium over 18 months, including two beluga whales and a false killer whale.
Nightingale cited the change in public opinion, fewer visitors to the park, and the loss of donations from major philanthropists who didn’t want to be linked to the controversy, according to The Province newspaper.
“We absolutely believe in the value of whales and dolphins in engaging people,” he told CBC News. “But you also have to be realistic, and it has gotten to the point where the debate in the community, with the lawyers, with the politicians ... is debilitating our work on our mission.”
The aquarium will continue to operate its Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, which rehabilitates injured sea mammals, but will have to find another facility if longer-term care is required.