The Vancouver Park Board voted unanimously to allow the aquarium to keep cetaceans in captivity at a special meeting Thursday night, but ordered an end to the breeding of most whales and dolphins.

The board has directed its staff to bring forward an amendment to the park bylaw that would prohibit the breeding of whales, dolphins and porpoises in Vancouver parks unless they are a threatened species.

Park board chair Aaron Jasper says it wasn't an easy decision.

"Every time we came back to the breeding program, we just felt that's a program that might serve other purposes, but we were not convinced that it served the purpose of conservation, rescue rehabilitation or research. So that's where we drew the line in the sand," he said.

The board has also ordered the establishment of an oversight committee consisting of animal welfare experts to ensure the safety and well-being of cetaceans in captivity.

But it stopped short of demanding the aquarium phase out its whale and dolphin program. However it did ask aquarium and park staff to investigate alternatives to the exhibition of cetaceans.

Animal cruelty?

Vancouver Aquarium president John Nightingale said the facility does not run a formal breeding program and preventing the animals from breeding on their own will be difficult.

"Healthy animals sometimes mate. So keeping them apart or using artificial contraceptives or whatever method the park board is going to mandate is not natural, so it's actually kind of animal cruelty," he said.

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Volunteer observers at the Vancouver Aquarium watch Qila the beluga during the final days of her pregnancy. (John Healey/Vancouver Aquarium))

Currently the aquarium only has two female belugas, females Aurora and Qila, two female Pacific white-sided dolphins, Hana, and Helen, and two rescued harbour porpoises, Jack and Daisy, which are too young to breed.

But the aquarium also has seven other belugas on loan to other accredited institutions, including five at SeaWorld and two at the Georgia Aquarium.

The park board is also calling on the aquarium to undertake a study "using all available scientific data" to determine if cetacean well-being is possible in the aquarium's whale pools.

Nightingale said he is disappointed at the political interference in the aquarium's operations.

"I'd have to say I think we're probably most deeply disappointed in the park board's decision to take management of its animals, and to some degree our whole mission from our experts at the aquarium, and transfer it to the politicians."

Many disappointed

The vote came after more than a hundred speakers voiced their thoughts on the Vancouver Aquarium's controversial program over the course of three park board meetings.

Many of the speakers called for a phasing out of the aquarium program that permits whales and dolphins to be kept in captivity.

Vancouver Aquarium protester

This protester says she supports whale rehabilitation, but says they should then be released. (Richard Zussman/CBC)

But Jasper said the board decided against it because it did not want to jeopardize the aquarium's success.

Outside the meeting after the vote, Errol Povah expressed disappointment, saying the park board didn't go far enough.

"They've indicated they want to stop breeding in Vancouver parks, which presumably refers to the aquarium. The way I understand, it doesn't address them sending Vancouver-owned whales and dolphins to other aquariums for breeding purposes, which I believe it should have."

CBC News found mixed scientific opinions to the research benefits of captive cetaceans, with some experts speaking in favour and many speaking against confining whales and dolphins in aquarium pools.

In May, renowned conservationist Jane Goodall weighed in on the controversy, penning a letter to the aquarium saying on-site cetacean breeding is "no longer defensible by science."

Past births and death controversial

In the past deaths of whales and dolphins born at the facility have led to calls for ending the cetacean program.

The aquarium is licensed by the park board and it already has a policy not to capture mammals. It currently has a mix of rescued animals that cannot be returned to the ocean and animals that were born in captivity.

It also operates a marine mammal rescue centre, which is not in Stanley Park, that recently rescued a false killer whale that was beached near Tofino.

A total of five belugas have been born in captivity at the aquarium and three of them have died before their third birthdays. Experts say the survival rate is similar to the survival rate for wild calves.

Aurora, a female beluga arrived at the Vancouver Aquarium from Churchill, Manitoba in the summer of 1990. She was born in the wild in approximately 1987.

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Qila gave birth to her own calf, Tiqa, in 2008. The birth was broadcast live around the world on the internet making international headlines. ((CBC))

Qila is Aurora’s daughter. She was born at the Aquarium on July 23, 1995, making her the first beluga born and conceived in a Canadian aquarium. Her father, Nanuq, now lives at Sea World in the United States.

Qila gave birth to her own calf, Tiqa, in 2008, making Tiqa the first calf born to an aquarium-born beluga. The birth was broadcast live around the world on the internet making international headlines. But Tiqu died from pneumonia at the age of three.

Aurora's second calf, Tuvaq, was born in 2002 but died suddenly in 2005.

Aurora's third calf Nala was born in June 2009 to Aurora, but pennies and pebbles tossed in the beluga tank plugged her breathing hole causing her death. 

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