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.
Debate over the future of cetaceans 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.
John Nightingale, the aquarium’s president, released an open letter ahead of the vote, urging park board members to look past their personal views on keeping cetaceans in captivity.
“At a time when we need more empathy for animals in an increasingly destructive marine environment, often caused by humans, we have the responsibility to do right by helpless whales, dolphins and porpoises,” he said.
Nightingale also argued that the aquarium’s cetacean program is key to research, and that stranded and injured animals will die if they can’t be brought to the facility.
“These are our most helpless animals and they deserve a chance to live if we’re able to give it to them,” he said.
But park board commissioner Stuart Mackinnon said at Monday’s meeting that the ban doesn’t prohibit the aquarium from rescuing animals, it just means they can’t bring cetaceans into its facility in Stanley Park.
“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 Catherine Evans agreed, saying the issue has been surrounded by “fear mongering.”
“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.”
Erin Shum was the sole park board member to vote against the proposed ban. Following the meeting, she said she was concerned that the legal and financial implications of the decision have not been discussed in public.
“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.”
Some aquarium officials, including president John Nightingale, were present for the board meeting, but left quietly after the vote was tallied.
Outside, hundreds of aquarium supporters stood in the pouring ran with signs reading “We support VanAqua” and “Every animal counts.” After the vote, they chanted “It’s not over.”
The Vancouver Aquarium did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the board’s decision, but did send out a tweet thanking supporters for coming to the meeting.
“It meant the world to us,” the tweet said.