The debate over keeping whales and dolphins in captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium could be put to a public vote this fall if one councillor gets her way, but it's not clear if the Park Board would endorse the outcome.

Last night the Park Board unanimously passed a motion to have staff study the practice and prepare a report to be made public this summer.

Meanwhile outside the aquarium in Stanley Park protesters made their point of view clear.

Opponents say the aquarium needs to phase out whales and dolphins from its exhibits.

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The Vancouver Aquarium is home to two beluga whales and two Pacific white-sided dolphins. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

"It's exceedingly cruel. They needs lots of space," said Leslie Kopas.

"It is wrong to keep them captivity. They suffer greatly, and it is cruel," said Annelise Sorg.

Vancouver Park Board chair Aaron Jasper, who put forward the motion for a study,  says keeping whales and dolphins in captivity is a complicated issue that leaves him feeling conflicted.

On the one hand, he takes his daughter to view the animals at the aquarium and says she's delighted by them.

But on the other hand he says, "I do wrestle with the ethics of keeping these large marine mammals, these social creatures in confined spaces, but I don't have all the facts."

Let voters decide, says Green Party councillor

Meanwhile over at Vancouver City Hall, Councillor Adriane Carr says she does not need any more facts or studies to know where she stands on the issue.

"A city aiming to be the greenest in the world simply cannot continue the practice of keeping these animals in this confined space," says Carr.

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In 2006 the Park Board approved a controversial plan for a $90 million expansion of the aquarium, including the whale and dolphin pools, which is still underway.

"Their lifestyles under natural conditions are wide ranging and wide-roaming. They dive to deep depths," she says.

Carr says if the Park Board can't decide what to do, then voters should be able to make a decision for them.

And that's why the Green Party councillor is putting forward a separate motion today to let voters have their say during municipal elections this fall.

"Put a plebiscite question to the public of Vancouver prior to any expansion of the aquarium," says Carr.    

Vancouver City Council is expected to debate Carr's motion for a vote later today.

But any plebiscite would be non-binding because the Park Board has the final say on the operation of the aquarium.

Mayor opposes public vote

Mayor Gregor Robertson has already said he is opposed to the idea of holding a referendum, but he does want to see the whale and dolphin exhibits at the aquarium phased out.

The Vancouver Aquarium, which is home to two beluga whales and two Pacific white-sided dolphins, insists that keeping cetaceans plays an essential role in marine conservation efforts.

The aquarium is the only one in Canada that can rescue, rehabilitate and provide a long-term home for marine mammals that otherwise wouldn't survive in the wild.

In 2006 the Park Board approved a controversial plan for a $90 million expansion of the aquarium, including the whale and dolphin pools, which is still underway.

The aquarium committed in 1996 to never again participate in the wild capture of whales for display — a commitment that was formalized in a park by-law, which is due for review in 2015.

VOTE: What should the Vancouver Aquarium do with whales, dolphins and other cetaceans?

With files from Dan Burritt and Luke Brocki