British Columbia

Vancouver Aquarium pushes back on cetacean ban

The Vancouver Aquarium is making a last ditch effort to gain public support for keeping mammals like dolphins on display in tanks, as a bylaw addressing cetacean captivity looms.

'It's going to be me that has to go and euthanize these animals; It's not the park board'

Chester, a false killer whale, and Helen, a Pacific white sided dolphin, poke their heads out of the water at the Vancouver Aquarium, as they wait for fish from a trainer. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The Vancouver Aquarium is making a last ditch effort to thwart a park board bylaw amendment which would ban the importation and display of cetaceans, like dolphins and belugas.

Aquarium officials hope a campaign to drum up public support will sway park board commissioners, who in March, voted unanimously in favour of making a change to the bylaws.

Randy Pratt, incoming board chair at the aquarium, argued on Thursday the ban would put the Marine Mammal Rescue program at risk — a program responsible for helping more than 100 animals in distress in B.C. each year, though the vast majority aren't cetaceans.

"The proposed bylaw has generated concern among our staff, members and the public about the fate of the Marine Mammal Rescue program and cetaceans currently in our care," said Pratt. "We are asking the public to make their voices heard on the issue."

Randy Pratt, incoming board chair at the Vancouver Aquarium, hopes public pressure will change the minds of park board commissioners, who voted unanimously to amend bylaws regarding cetacean captivity in March. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

The aquarium is encouraging people to use the letter-sending form on its website to send a note to the park board. The default note in the form includes the following:

"Without access to the resources and expertise of the aquarium's Marine Mammal Rescue Program, rescued animals face dire consequences. For the sake of these animals, our parks and our community, I hope the park board reconsiders its position."

Dr. Martin Haulena, the aquarium's head veterinarian said, without the rescue program, cetaceans found to be in distress in the wild will have to be put down.

"It's going to be me that has to go and euthanize these animals. It's not the park board. It's not the politicians. It's not the people that are yelling out in front of the aquarium that are going to have to go and euthanize the animals," said Haulena.

"It's going to be me or it's going to be some poor conservation officer with a firearm," he said.

Haulena said he's losing sleep, as the stress of the approaching bylaw mounts.

"I've devoted my entire life to saving animals," he said

Helen, a Pacific white-sided dolphin, swims in the display tank at the Vancouver Aquarium on Thursday. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

"You're just mulling over the potential outcomes all the time. You're going, what's going to happen with this animal or that animal,'" said Haulena, who added the idea the rescue program could be run at a facility beyond park board control wasn't realistic. 

"There aren't many new aquariums that are built these days. You're looking at hundreds of millions of dollars to start," he said.

"We're a private non-profit that doesn't rely on any outside funding for running costs, so programs like Marine Mammal Rescue are funded entirely by people that come and visit."

Dr. Martin Haulena, head veterinarian at the Vancouver Aquarium, fears his Marine Mammal Rescue program will be at risk of shutting down if the park board changes its bylaws to ban cetacean importation and display. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Park board commissioners are set to vote on the bylaw amendment on May 15. The exact language will be released to the public a week before then.

"The amendments, which are being finalized, are thoughtful and reflective of public opinion. They take into consideration that rescued cetaceans Chester, Helen and Daisy are currently receiving care in Stanley Park," said park board chair Michael Wiebe.

"The board will continue to work with aquarium staff to support a thriving rescue program," said the park board in a released statement.

Asked whether he thought there was actually a chance the last-minute public campaign could change the minds of the park board commissioners, Haulena was unsure.

"I don't know," he said. "I just don't know. I'm just a dumb veterinarian at the end of the day."

Follow Rafferty Baker on Twitter: @raffertybaker


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