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No cause of death yet for aquarium belugas, but facility to expand its exhibit

Last Updated Feb 21, 2017 at 6:40 am PDT

Beluga whale Qila leaps out of the water at the Vancouver Aquarium in Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday, June 25, 2014. Vancouver aquarium officials say they still don't know what killed two beluga whales last year, but the facility is pushing ahead with plans to expand its beluga conservation program. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

VANCOUVER – Vancouver aquarium officials say they still don’t know what killed two beluga whales last year, but the facility is pushing ahead with plans to expand its beluga conservation program.

Aquarium CEO John Nightingale said the work it does with the vulnerable species is critical and as a marine science centre with conservation as its mission, they believe they have an obligation to keep at that work.

“This institution will continue to be the one and only place in Canada that scientists can do research on belugas that are trained to participate,” he said during a news conference on Monday.

Nightingale said they intend to phase out the program and the aquarium will no longer hold belugas after 2029.

Two belugas, a 21-year-old called Qila and her mother, 30-year-old Aurora, died nine days apart at the aquarium last November from a mysterious illness and officials say they still haven’t ruled out “malicious action.”

Head veterinarian Martin Haulena said some results are still pending and a toxin is the most likely cause, but they haven’t been able to pinpoint the source despite over $100,000 spent on testing.

“There is no evidence of anything intrinsically wrong with having the whales in that habitat at the time of their mortality,” Haulena said.

“But the epidemiology, the scenario, the chain of events leaves us highly suspect of a toxin, a toxin that came and went and one that we may not identify.”

Nightingale said the possibility that someone poisoned the whales has not been discounted and he would be speaking with Vancouver police.

“But there is not a lot of concrete evidence to go on,” he said, adding he would ask police about suggestions for improving security at the facility.

Vancouver police spokesman Const. Jason Doucette said that the department was not aware of any evidence that suggests the belugas deaths were a criminal act.

He said in an email statement that no formal investigation has been requested, but officers were in touch with aquarium staff at the time of the deaths.

The aquarium’s board questioned whether risks could be mitigated in the event that the source of the toxin is never discovered, Nightingale said.

“And the answer is we can reduce a lot of them, even further than we have through world-leading practice to date, but some of them are probably impossible to totally eliminate,” he said.

Nightingale said furthering research on belugas is crucial given the deterioration of their natural habitat with climate change and pollution.

“It is one thing to do field research but there are certain things you cannot do by jumping out of a boat and jumping on a wild beluga,” he said.

He said metabolic studies, for example, can only be done in a controlled environment with animals that have been trained.

Vancouver Humane Society spokesman Peter Fricker said he thinks resources could be better spent on conservation programs and field research than expanding the exhibit, which will not replicate living in the open ocean.

“It’s certainly not the case that they’re going to develop some kind of paradise for whales, it’s going to be the same thing, just slightly bigger,” he said.

Fricker said a report released by the humane society and wildlife protection charity Zoocheck last year found the overall contribution research at the aquarium is adding to knowledge about cetaceans is minimal and does not justify captivity.

Nightingale said opponents of cetacean captivity “in my view have no credibility.”

“They’re not doing anything about the future, they are tackling an ideologically driven position around, in this case, belugas here in this aquarium,” he said.

The new Canada’s Arctic exhibit will house three to five non-breeding whales in an expanded habitat and will include a team of first responders whose roles will be to take on emergencies for stranded, sick or injured marine mammals.

The whales will likely include those already owned by the aquarium but currently on loan to other facilities.