A beluga calf named Nala swims with its mother shortly after it was born at the Vancouver Aquarium on June 7, 2009. Nala died in June after its airway became blocked. ((Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press))

Vancouver residents will get a say on whether the city aquarium's whale and dolphin exhibit should be shut down, if a motion proposed by a park board commissioner is approved.

Stuart Mackinnon doesn't think the aquarium should accept any new cetaceans, so he has introduced a motion to hold a plebiscite on the issue in the next civic election.

"I don't believe in cetaceans in captivity. I don't think that these gorgeous large animals should be kept in small pens," the Green Party member told CBC Radio on Thursday morning.

According to the motion, the non-binding plebiscite would ask the public "if they are in favour of ending the containment of cetaceans in Vancouver parks, including the phase out of existing cetacean exhibits which are located on land leased by the park board."

Mackinnon said a similar plebiscite led to the closure of the Stanley Park zoo in the 1990s.

"This is just bringing back what was promised by previous park boards," he said.

Public vote could lead to lawsuit

But park board chair Aaron Jasper said the board has a contract with the aquarium and can't review the whale and dolphin captivity programs until 2015 without risking a lawsuit because a vote could damage the aquarium's plans for expansion.

"This really would call into question their ability to find funding for their expansion, and I don't think it would be outside the realm of possibility that the taxpayer would be faced with a lawsuit," Jasper told CBC Radio Monday.

Jasper, who is part of the Vision Vancouver civic party which has a majority on the board, said he is opposed to the idea of a plebiscite on the future of the aquarium.

"I think the aquarium does a great job with respect to not only education, but also work in the community, marine conservation," he said.

"I think for anyone to imply that they mistreat the animals — I don't agree with that. I think they do a fabulous job and personally I have no interest in my term in reviewing this matter at all," he added.

But Mackinnon said if the provincial government follows through on a proposal to lengthen the terms of elected municipal officials, the 2011 civic election would be the last chance for the public to have a say on the issue before 2015.

Vancouver Aquarium staff have issued a statement saying they strongly oppose the idea of a plebiscite and plan to address Mackinnon's motion at the July 19 park board meeting.

The aquarium has several beluga whales and dolphins, but the deaths of several beluga calves in recent years have raised calls to shut down the cetacean exhibits. Public opposition to the aquarium's killer whale exhibit led to its closure almost a decade ago.