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Park board approves bylaw banning whales, dolphins at Vancouver Aquarium

Last Updated May 16, 2017 at 6:20 am PDT

VANCOUVER – A bylaw banning whales, dolphins and porpoises in captivity has been approved by Vancouver’s park board.

The board voted 6 to 1 in favour of approving the bylaw at a meeting Monday night, while hundreds of protesters gathered outside to loudly voice their opposition to the ban.

The bylaw goes into effect immediately, preventing the Vancouver Aquarium from bringing new cetaceans to its facility in Stanley Park.

Park board commissioner Catherine Evans said the bylaw allows Vancouver to “catch up” in terms of the ethical treatment of animals.

“It’s not only can you do this, but should you do this,” she said. “And so, I think, yes we can keep cetaceans in captivity … but I think we have reached the point now where we know that we shouldn’t where there are other options.”

But John Nightingale, the aquarium’s president and CEO, said in a statement Monday night that the move will force rescuers to euthanize animals that can’t be released back into the wild.

“There are no other long-term homes or options in Canada for rescued, non-releasable cetaceans,” he said.

Debate over the future of whales, dolphins and porpoises at the facility has been simmering for several years, but heated up last fall when two belugas died at the aquarium after being exposed to an unidentified toxin.

A previous version of the bylaw limited which cetaceans the aquarium could acquire to those injured or in need of rehabilitation that could not be released back into the wild after treatment.

The aquarium currently has three cetaceans on display, including a false killer whale, a harbour porpoise and a Pacific white-sided dolphin. All three will be allowed to stay under the new rules, but the bylaw prevents them from being used in shows or performances.

The aquarium previously announced plans to phase out its cetacean program by 2029, but first wanted to bring in five new belugas for a exhibit that is currently under development.

Nightingale said the ban “places the opinion of a vocal few” above the majority of Vancouver residents and the scientific community, but he vowed to continue fighting for the rescue program.

“We will now focus our attention on the cetacean ban which will have far-reaching implications for whales, dolphins and porpoises,” he said.”We will keep all options open as we review its impacts on our mandate of conservation that includes advancing scientific knowledge and educating the public.”

Some park board members countered the notion that the cetacean ban prohibits the aquarium from rescuing animals.

Commissioner Stuart Mackinnon said the move simply means the cetaceans cannot be brought to the facility in Stanley Park, but the aquarium can still treat the animals at its rescue centre, which is not located on park board property.

“The choice of whether the marine mammal rescue centre continues to work with cetaceans is entirely their own,” he said.

“It is a lie to say that the park board does not support the marine mammal rescue centre. It is a lie to say that members of this board favour euthanasia for other animals.”

Commissioner Sarah Kirby-Yung said rhetoric around the issue had “whipped the public into a frenzy.” As she spoke, hundreds of aquarium supporters stood outside in the pouring ran with signs reading “We support VanAqua” and “Every animal counts.” After the vote, they chanted “It’s not over.”

Erin Shum was the sole park board member to vote against the proposed ban and said after the meeting that she is concerned that the legal and financial implications of the decision have not been discussed in public.

Shum said she was disappointed in the vote, but glad to see aquarium supporters coming out to voice their opinions.

“I’m very proud that they came out,” she said. “It breaks my heart to see them standing out there and fighting so hard for marine science and rehabilitation.”