The Vancouver Park Board is expecting a full house and dozens of speakers tonight, for a special meeting on the future of captive whales at the Vancouver Aquarium.

The board will consider four options, which range from embracing the aquarium's plans for expansion, to holding a city-wide plebiscite on the matter to banning captive cetaceans altogether.

The long-simmering debate over whales, dolphins and porpoises in captivity has heated up since last November, when the only two whales at the aquarium, beluga Qila and her adult daughter, Aurora, died within two weeks of one another from an unknown cause, possibly a toxin.

Park board chair Michael Wiebe said commissioners are getting thousands of emails — one every few minutes — from people and groups in Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere.

"This is becoming a worldwide issue," said Wiebe.

"Vancouver's decision is going to influence what's happening around the world as it becomes part of what best practices are."

Speakers are still signing up for tonight's meeting (until noon today) but will include the Vancouver Aquarium, scientists, activists and others. The list is expected to grow so long, a second meeting is planned for Thursday night.

bc-090605-qila-pregnancy-vancouver-aquarium

Volunteer observers at the Vancouver Aquarium watch Qila the beluga during the final days of her pregnancy in 2008. She died last year. (John Healey/Vancouver Aquarium)

4 possibilities on the table

The aquarium's fate is in the hands of the elected Vancouver Park Board through a longstanding lease for the facility's Stanley Park location, where its been since 1956.

A staff report for tonight's meeting outlines four possibilities:

  • Call for a non-binding, city-wide plebiscite, likely during the 2018 municipal election.
  • Accept the aquarium's plans to expand the beluga pool and bring whales back until 2029 but not breed them.
  • Change the parks control bylaws.
  • Maintain the status quo.

Park commissioner Sarah Kirby-Yung, who proposed the plebiscite in November, said hearing from the public is important before she, or the board as a whole, makes a decision.

"This is a tough issue. There's a lot of emotion around it and there's a lot of very loud voices," said Kirby-Yung, who worked for the aquarium in the past.

"What I hear is twofold. I hear mostly that there's a lot of heart for the Vancouver Aquarium," she said.

"But I hear consistently that people are less and less comfortable or just not comfortable with having cetaceans in facilities like this anymore. They think that there was a time and that time is no longer."

Park Board Protest

Protesters interrupt a Vancouver Park Board meeting on Nov. 28, 2016. (Vancouver Park Board)

Aquarium felt its plan was a 'compromise'

The aquarium disputes that public opinion, on the whole, has turned against it or whales in captivity.

President and CEO John Nightingale blames "animal activists" and "outside interest groups" for the current debate, which has brought a "tremendous amount of uncertainty" to the aquarium.

"This institution has ... [been] trying to make a difference to the future of nature for the last 60 years," said Nightingale in an interview.

"And now politicians are saying for other reasons, for ideological reasons, they might want to change that, and it seems to me that isn't the best way to make public policy."

The aquarium will make its case Wednesday night for its expansion plans to bring belugas back until 2029 but not breed them.

"We proposed a kind of compromise, we thought," said Nightingale.

"Which was to bring belugas back to a new exhibit, smaller than we would have originally built, to allow for an orderly transition from having had these animals for 50 years ... to a future when there will not be belugas in Vancouver."

Aquarium Construction 20140605

John Nightingale, the president and CEO of the Vancouver Aquarium, says the public still supports his facility and will make that case to the park board Wednesday. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

'Bring the science'

With a packed speakers' list, an emotional issue and heightened tensions between the aquarium and park board, the meeting tonight could get heated.

Board chair Wiebe says the commissioners need to hear from people who know something — and not just feel something.

"Bring the science. Bring the understanding. Come to park board and bring us a good pitch," said Wiebe.

"To come and say you don't like it without having any background is the right of any citizen, but we're really trying to get some information here."

The decision, which may not come this week, could "significantly diminish" the aquarium, said Nightingale but not kill it.

"The public may not be as thrilled with some of the outcomes as they would with others, but I think the institution itself will survive."

Aurora beluga

Aurora, then 20 years old, swims past visitors at the Vancouver Aquarium in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday Jan. 29, 2009. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)