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Captive whale research doesn't increase wild conservation, study

Aurora the beluga whale (courtesy Vancouver Aquarium)

Animal rights groups looked at Vancouver Aquarium a whales in capitivity practices

VANCOUVER (NEWS1130) – Keeping whales and dolphins in captivity doesn’t help scientists learn about and conserve them, despite claims from aquariums, according to a new study by the Vancouver Humane Society (VHS) and Zoocheck.

The report “A Crumbling Case for Cetacean Captivity?” looked at original, peer reviewed papers from the Vancouver Aquarium and Marineland in Niagara Falls and counted how many times each study was citied in other scientific works in order to gauge the benefit research on captive cetaceans – whales and dolphins – had within the scientific community.

“(The benefit) is not substantial enough to put these highly complex animals through this life in captivity that cannot meet their biological and behavioural needs,” Zoocheck campaigns director Jule Woodyer says.

Using Web of Science, Scopus and Google Scholar, the report found the Vancouver Aquarium had conducted 13 studies on its captive cetaceans in the last 30 years, while Marineland had done six since 2006 and most of them were only citied a couple times in other research papers. The 19 studies, VSH says, do not compare to the hundred or more papers written about wild cetaceans annually.

The study concluded that captivity is not necessary for most of the research done by the aquariums on marine mammals.

“The majority of research projects that are going on in zoos and aquariums in general are designed to deal with captivity related problems. They’re not designed to deal with issues that preserve conservation of their wild counterparts,” Woodyer says, adding only one study was used significantly, but that the data could have been collected from wild species.

One of the reasons scientists are not using captive animal data, Woodyer says, is because the animals do not act the same as their wild cousins; they can’t dive, hunt or have the same social interactions.

The presence of the animals also did nothing to increase interest in conservation among the general populace, according to the study. Study authors visited the two aquariums and concluded while the information provided by signs and staff was largely accurate, they had no way to measure whether their efforts resulted in increased conservation.

The study comes shortly after the mysterious deaths of beluga whales Aurora and her daughter Qila at the Vancouver Aquarium in November.

VSH and Zoocheck want aquariums to halt the captive breeding and importing of cetaceans, end entertainment performances and phase out the captive programs.

Vancouver Park Board Chair Sarah Kirby-Yung introduced a motion to include a question on the 2018 municipal ballot about whether or not residents support having cetaceans at the aquarium.

Woodyer says in the meantime, they would like to see the aquarium stop all tank expansion projects.