British Columbia

Vancouver Aquarium sues city, park board over cetacean ban

The Vancouver Aquarium is suing the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Park Board over the 2017 cetacean ban, claiming the ban has resulted in losses of millions of dollars in revenue, and was in breach of contract.

Aquarium claims it has lost millions in revenue and cites breach of contract

A trainer works with Beluga whale Aurora at the Vancouver Aquarium in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday June 25, 2014. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

The Vancouver Aquarium is suing the city of Vancouver and the Vancouver Park Board over the 2017 cetacean ban, claiming it resulted in millions of dollars in lost revenue, and constituted a breach of contract.

In May 2017, the Vancouver Park Board voted to amend a bylaw that would ban bringing cetaceans into city parks, and prohibit shows and performances involving cetaceans.

The board also voted to ban the keeping of cetaceans in city parks, with the exception of cetaceans already present in the aquarium.

According to documents filed in B.C. Supreme Court by the aquarium's parent company, Ocean Wise, on May 14, the aquarium is now seeking damages for breach of contract and incurred costs.

It claims the ban hindered the aquarium's "ability to carry out day-to-day administration" of the centre, and "interfered with the permitted uses under the Licence Agreement."

The Vancouver Park Board said in a written statement that it's reviewing the statement of claim with legal counsel and considering its options, but won't offer additional comment because the matter is before the courts. 

Decline in visitors

There are currently no whales on display at the Vancouver Aquarium, though there is one dolphin. Back in 1999 when the licence agreement with the park board was established, there were five belugas, one killer whale, and one Pacific white-sided dolphin.

In the court documents, the aquarium says it has seen a 13-per-cent decline in visitors in 2017 and 2018, resulting in a loss of $4-million in each of those years. 

The suit also says the aquarium has incurred major costs for a major expansion project that had been green lit by the park board.

Starting in the early 2000s, the aquarium began planning a $100-million dollar revitalization and expansion project, which included a "substantially renovated and expanded facilities for cetaceans, including larger pools for cetaceans."

Volunteer observers at the Vancouver Aquarium watch Qila the Beluga. (John Healey/Vancouver Aquarium)

The park board approved the proposed design, and in 2009 the aquarium began paying an increased licence fee of $170,000, a sharp increase from the previous $40,000 fee.

In 2014, the Vancouver Aquarium completed the first phase of the expansion project, which cost over $2.75 million to improve cetacean facilities.

When the ban was voted on in May 2017, the aquarium was preparing to begin construction on the second phase of the project.

It claims it had already undertaken costs for designing and planning the second phase, had obtained financial commitments, and had planned to bring back a small group of beluga whales which were on loan to other aquariums across North America.

One of many legal battles

The suit by the aquarium is just the latest in a series of legal challenges about whether cetaceans should be allowed at the facility.

After the May 2017 vote banning the import of new cetaceans to the city, the aquarium launched a legal challenge which it later withdrew, saying the heated public debate on the issue was hindering its conservation work.

In February 2018, the Supreme Court  ruled the park board didn't have the authority to ban cetaceans, saying it was in conflict with its licensing agreement to not interfere with the aquarium's operations. The park board successfully appealed that decision in February.

In a written statement, Ocean Wise declined to comment on the case because it is before the courts.