A Senate bill proposing a ban on keeping whales, dolphins and porpoises in captivity is sending ripples of concern through the Vancouver Aquarium.

Liberal Senator Wilfred Moore wants to phase out holding cetaceans in captivity across Canada. The Nova Scotia senator says the animals belong in the wild, not in tanks.

If passed, the legislation would directly affect operations at the Vancouver Aquarium.

"It surprised everybody," said John Nightingale, aquarium president and CEO, who added he is disappointed by the bill.

The proposed legislation has the support of the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies, the B.C. SPCA, as well as Zoocheck Canada.

"I believe the activist community has looked long and hard for politicians who would support them and they found one," said Nightingale.

Captive cetaceans offer 'public inspiration' 

The Vancouver Aquarium hasn't captured wild cetaceans for three decades and has no intention of doing so in the future, says Nightingale.

But he defended keeping whales, dolphins and porpoises in captivity on educational and scientific grounds. Scientific research that focuses solely on marine mammals in the wild, he says, would not be enough.

"Field studies in the wild have been going on for a long time and will always be a major part of understanding what we are doing to nature, but the research starts in the aquarium."

"You often need to calibrate the research in an aquarium and start it there and then take it to the field."

Nightingale says the Vancouver Aquarium does valuable science and conservation work, is the only marine mammal rescue centre in the country, and seeing whales in person can inspire people to learn more about the ocean.

"It's really a question of should a few marine mammals live in a place like the Vancouver Aquarium and for what purpose?"

"One (purpose) is public inspiration. Seeing them, learning about them, raises the level of interest and curiosity ... We need more people interested in and understanding what's going on in our ocean environments..."

"Whales and dolphins ... are particularly good at lighting that very first match with individual people."

Long debate 

The proposed bill, called the Ending the Captivity of Whales and Dolphins Act, comes after a firestorm of protest by animal rights groups and concerned citizens last year over the Vancouver Aquarium's expansion plans.

Many were mobilized by the documentary 'Blackfish' about a SeaWorld orca that has been involved in the deaths of three people.

"A city aiming to be the greenest in the world simply cannot continue the practice of keeping these animals in this confined space," said Green Party Councillor Adriane Carr in April 2014, after proposing a plebiscite question be put to the public prior to any expansion of the aquarium.​

By July of that year, the Vision Vancouver-dominated park board, which has final say over what goes on in Stanley Park where the aquarium is located, voted to ban the breeding of whales and dolphins in captivity, but it didn't pass the bylaw amendment before the municipal election in November.

The Vancouver Aquarium filed a petition in BC Supreme Court challenging the park board's jurisdiction to impose such a ban saying it interferes with the day-to-day operation of its business.

When the The Non-Partisan Association took control of the park board after the November 2014 municipal election, it chose not to enact the proposed ban nor did it reopen the debate after the death of the beluga Nanuq, which the Vancouver Aquarium had loaned to SeaWorld in Florida for breeding purposes.

To hear the full interview with Vancouver Aquarium CEO John Nightingale listen to the audio labelled Vancouver Aquarium.