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The Vancouver Aquarium needs a new vision

News that the Vancouver Aquarium is suing the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Park Board over the 2017 cetacean ban is a sad reminder that the aquarium remains out of step with changes in public attitudes and has no vision for the future that could reflect those changes.

With federal legislation banning cetacean captivity now the law of the land, the aquariums’s lawsuit seems particularly ill-timed and contrary to the spirit of the times.  It’s even more peculiar given that the aquarium itself said in 2018 that it would no longer keep whales and dolphins.

Still in the business of cetacean captivity

While the issue of cetacean captivity is largely settled, there remains much to be concerned about regarding the aquarium and its future direction.

First, the revelation that Ontario’s controversial Marineland amusement park is transferring two beluga whales owned by the Vancouver Aquarium to a facility in Valencia, Spain (which the aquarium manages), clearly demonstrates that it is still in the businesses of cetacean captivity.  They’re just not doing it in Stanley Park. The aquarium is also believed to own belugas kept at other facilities in the U.S. (Two belugas owned by the aquarium died at the notorious SeaWorld in 2015.)

The Valencia facility, L’Oceanogràfic, is the largest complex of its type in Europe and reportedly keeps 45,000 animals of 500 different species including fish, mammals, birds, reptiles and invertebrates. Its dolphinarium features two shows a day, with trained dolphins performing tricks for a large crowd. It’s clearly a place of entertainment.  While L’Oceanogràfic is a popular attraction it is not hard to find visitor reviews that are critical of animal welfare at the complex.

Facilities like Marineland, SeaWorld and L’Oceanogràfic represent everything that the Vancouver Aquarium should be moving away from. While the aquarium has done some rebranding, calling itself part of Ocean Wise, a “worldwide conservation organization” it remains primarily a place of entertainment, not conservation.

Restraints on speaking out against threats to marine life 

One of the most pressing marine conservation issues in B.C. is the potential extinction of B.C.’s Southern Resident killer whales.  The National Energy Board has admitted that the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline project will likely “cause significant adverse environmental effects on the Southern resident killer whale and on Indigenous cultural use associated with the Southern Resident killer whale.”  Conservation groups like the Raincoast Conservation Foundation have opposed the pipeline for this reason.  Yet, the Vancouver Aquarium’s voice is rarely heard in the pipeline debate.

Some fear that the aquarium’s reticence on such issues may be due to its links to business, especially to resource extraction industries. Mining company Teck donated $12.5 million to the aquarium in 2012 and one of its galleries is named for the company.  The Vancouver Board of Trade supported the aquarium in its fight to keep cetaceans in captivity, obviously cognizant of the tourist dollars the aquarium brings in. There is clearly a potential for a conflict of interest that would keep the aquarium out of important debates that are relevant to a genuine conservation role.

A drift toward becoming a zoo?

Another concern is the aquarium’s apparent “mission creep” toward becoming a zoo. It’s collection of 58,000 animals includes sloths, penguins, monkeys, snakes and macaws, which are hardly aquatic species. It would be unfortunate if this trend continued and the menagerie grew just to provide an additional attraction.

The Vancouver Aquarium, like all zoos and aquariums, justifies putting animals on display by claiming that they serve to educate and inspire people to value wildlife.  Yet there is little evidence to show that is the case.  There is, however, research to the contrary, as Zoocheck executive director Rob Laidlaw has stated: “There have been a number of studies examining how long zoo visitors look at animals. The results show that for some animals, particularly if they are not active, observation times can vary from about eight seconds to 90 seconds. There’s not much that can be learned about an animal in that length of time.”

Need for transparency

There is also a need for the aquarium to show greater transparency in its operations if it seeks to build public trust, especially as a conservation organization.  Its website states:

“Aquarium animals come to us from many places and in many different ways. Many animals arrive at the Aquarium as part of an exchange program with other large aquariums, zoos and universities. Most of the tropical fish are flown to the Aquarium from dealers around the world. The Aquarium tries to buy fish from sustainable fisheries and conservation-based associations, and only purchases from dealers who collect fish with nets, and not chemicals or explosives.

“Aquarium divers have permits to collect marine invertebrates including octopuses, sea stars, sea anemones and species of fish. Other collectors walk out from the beach with seine nets to gather local invertebrates and fishes. Many animals are also born into our care. Once in the Aquarium, animals normally live for many years.”

Who are these “dealers”?  How reputable are they and are they also involved in the exotic pet trade, which has damaged wildlife populations.  And there is the basic ethical question about removing animals from their natural habitat just to put them on public display. Who benefits? Certainly not the animals.

The aquarium should be transparent about where all its animals come from and how they are obtained. It should also be open about what happens to them after they become part of the collection. How many die prematurely?  Does the aquarium keep data on survival rates?

Opportunity for genuine change and new vision

The Vancouver Aquarium has an opportunity to do more than rebrand itself with name changes and new websites. But it needs to resolve the conflict between being a tourist attraction and a genuine conservation organization. 

There are ways forward. Some aquariums are moving away from making captive wildlife their star attractions. The Aquarium of the Pacific in California is opening a multi-million dollar “immersive theatre” that features “wind, fog, scent and vibrating seats to storms playing out on a massive, two-story-tall screen.” The theatre is part of a new “Pacific Visions” wing designed to “explore pressing environmental issues and suggest alternative pathways to a sustainable future.”

Hawaii’s Maui Ocean Centre, which has no captive cetaceans recently launched a digital “Humpbacks of Hawaii” exhibit using the integration of 4k imagery, 3D active glasses and a 7.1 surround sound system. The centre says the exhibit “transports guests deep into the ocean, giving them an inside look into the complex and vibrant lives of Maui’s humpback whales, and allowing them to forge new connections with one of nature’s greatest marvels.”

The aquarium could develop a vision for the future that is based on genuine education and conservation. It could employ the latest technology to make learning about marine life exciting and compelling.  It could use its voice to contribute to debates about real threats to B.C.’s coastal waters.

It could also invest in research about some of the big questions surrounding marine life. One of most recent and most profound of these has been the question of fish sentience.  The latest research shows that, contrary to previous perceptions, fish feel pain.  What are the implications of this?  The Vancouver Aquarium could be at the forefront of discussions about such big issues.

And why doesn’t the aquarium explore cooperation with the U.S.-based Whale Sanctuary Project, which has considered the B.C. coast as a possible a site for a sanctuary? There would be huge public support for the aquarium’s involvement.

It’s time the Vancouver Aquarium left the entertainment industry behind and became something much more valuable: A beacon to help guide us through the challenges that face our seas and a champion of the precious marine life they contain.  That is what Vancouver – and the world – needs, not just another place to see captive animals living out their lives in tanks.

Media Release

BC SPCA and VHS seek leave to intervene in Vancouver Aquarium lawsuit against City of Vancouver Park Board

UPDATE (Sept 19, 2017): We are disappointed to report that the B.C. Supreme court has not granted VHS and the BC SPCA leave to intervene in the Vancouver Aquarium’s lawsuit against the Vancouver Park Board.

Today (Sept 7), as described in the press release below, VHS is joining with the BC SPCA in seeking to speak on behalf of the animals who may be affected by any challenge to the Vancouver Park Board bylaw that currently bans the keeping of cetaceans at the Vancouver Aquarium.

Sept. 7, 2017. For immediate release. Vancouver – The British Columbia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (BC SPCA) and the Vancouver Humane Society (VHS) are seeking leave at the British Columbia Supreme Court to intervene in the Vancouver Aquarium’s lawsuit against the Vancouver Park Board.  The aquarium’s lawsuit aims to invalidate a bylaw passed by the Park Board that bans the keeping of cetaceans in Stanley Park.

The BC SPCA and the VHS fully support the ban on cetaceans at the park because they say the animals’ complex needs cannot be met in captivity, which compromises their welfare.

Both organizations believe that if the bylaw is struck down, it could deter elected officials from considering animal welfare when drafting laws that impact animals.  They say it would also set a dangerous precedent, limiting their ability to influence the drafting and implementation of laws affecting animals.

If granted intervenor status by the court, the BC SPCA and the VHS will submit that the Park Board is acting within its legislative capacity and is exercising its authority in the public interest, which includes consideration of the humane treatment of animals.

“If this bylaw is overturned it will not only compromise the welfare of cetaceans, it could undermine animal welfare across Canada,” said VHS executive director Debra Probert.

“The BC SPCA believes this bylaw serves the best interests of cetaceans. As an organization that speaks out on behalf of wild, companion and farm animals, we have a responsibility to support laws and bylaws that promote good welfare,” says Craig Daniell, chief executive officer of the BC SPCA.

The BC SPCA is the largest animal welfare organization of its kind in North America and the largest animal sheltering society in the world. The VHS is a registered charity dedicated to the humane treatment of animals.   Both organizations are being represented by Vancouver lawyer Rebeka Breder of Breder Law.


The BC SPCA/VHS application to intervene is available here.

Media Release

Vancouver Humane Society questions Vancouver Aquarium’s claims on marine mammal rescue

Media release

April 27, 2017

Vancouver – The Vancouver Humane Society (VHS) is questioning claims by the Vancouver Aquarium that its marine mammal rescue program is threatened by a ban on cetacean display at the aquarium. The Vancouver Park Board voted in March to amend a bylaw to ban the display of cetaceans at the aquarium.

VHS points out that other major wildlife rehabilitation facilities in British Columbia do not put rescued animals on public display, despite dealing with many more rescues than the aquarium.

“Wildlife rehabilitation is not about rescuing animals to put them on display,” said VHS spokesperson Peter Fricker.  “The mandate is to rehabilitate and release animals.”  He said the aquarium’s current non-releasable rescued animals do not need to be on display to meet their welfare needs.

VHS argues that the aquarium should seek to work with the Whale Sanctuary Project, which is proposing to establish sea-pen sanctuaries for former captive cetaceans and non-releasable rescued cetaceans.


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A victory for the opposition to cetacean captivity

VHS is thrilled with the unanimous vote by the Vancouver Park Board to direct its staff to bring forward a bylaw change by May 2017 prohibiting display of cetaceans at Vancouver Aquarium.

This is a huge step forward in the fight against cetacean captivity.  We hope the Park Board will approve the amended bylaw in May and end the aquarium’s captive cetacean program once and for all.

We would like to congratulate and thank all the groups and individuals who have helped convince the Park Board that now is the time to stop putting captive whales and dolphins on display at the aquarium.

VHS is proud to have played a part in the broad and growing movement to end cetacean captivity.  Late, last year we and Zoocheck published a powerful report that questioned claimed value of the aquarium’s cetacean research.

The report was distributed to each Park Board Commissioner and was followed up by a presentation to the board, which is reprinted here: 

The crux of this debate, in our view, is whether the Vancouver Aquarium’s claimed benefits of cetacean captivity outweigh the negative impacts of that captivity on animal welfare. 

The concerns over animal welfare are genuine and credible, but the Aquarium has tried to undermine those concerns with personal attacks on those who oppose its plans.

The Aquarium’s CEO, Dr. Nightingale said opponents of cetacean captivity “in my view have no credibility.” – CP story, Feb 21, 2017

Dr. Nightingale has referred to those who oppose cetacean captivity at the aquarium as “extremists” – “The head of the Vancouver Aquarium says “extremists” are behind a petition calling for a referendum to decide whether any new dolphins, whales or porpoises can be added to its expanding tanks.” – Metro News Vancouver, Feb 17, 2014.

I would like to list some of the people who are on record as opposing cetacean captivity at the Aquarium:

Dr. Lori Marino, Ph.D. – neuroscientist and expert in animal behavior and intelligence

Dr. Naomi RosePh.D. – marine mammal scientist for the Animal Welfare Institute.

Dr. David Duffus, Ph.D. – founder of the Whale Research Lab at the University of Victoria

Dr. Paul Spong, Ph.D. – neuroscientist and cetologist, founder of the OrcaLab on Vanc Island

BC biologist Alexandra Morton –  who in 2006 received an award from Van Aquarium for Excellence in Aquatic Conservation.

 Dr. Jane Goodall, world-renowned animal scientist, whom Dr. Nightingale dismissed as “operating on information provided by the activist community.”

 Dr. Rebecca Ledger, Ph.D., animal behaviourist.

 This is what Dr. Ledger told the Vancouver Province after viewing the captive belugas Quila and Aurora at the Aquarium last July:

 “They’re trapped,” said Rebecca Ledger, an expert in animal behaviour, during a visit to the aquarium with The Province. “Psychologically, they are not fulfilled and are behaving abnormally. That’s sad, especially since these are very intelligent animals. We’re not talking about cockroaches, we’re talking about cetaceans.” – Vanc Province, July 2. 2016

 Barbara Cartwright, CEO of the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies, which represents SPCAs and humane societies across Canada, including our own BC SPCA…

 And what about the BC SPCA? – the agency with statutory responsibility for protecting animals in BC:

Here’s what the BC SPCA website says: “The BC SPCA recognizes the complex needs of cetaceans, and their highly sentient and social nature,” says Dr. Sara Dubois, BC SPCA chief scientific officer. “The society is opposed to the capture, confinement, and breeding of marine mammals for entertainment or educational display, as fully providing the animals with the Five Freedoms is not possible for wild animals who require large and diverse aquatic habitats to live. It is time to phase out these displays.”

These people are not extremists.  They do not lack credibility.  Yet the aquarium continues to demonize those who disagree with its plans.

What does lack credibility is the Aquarium’s sudden prioritization of Beluga whale research, which it claims is the chief reason for bringing back belugas to live and be displayed until 2029 – at least another decade..

Dr. Nightingale now says research on belugas is “crucial”. – CP story, Feb 21, 2017

But in a report VHS and Zoocheck released last year, we reviewed published Vancouver Aquarium research papers in which captive cetaceans were the research subjects.

 The report found just 13 peer-reviewed original scientific papers over the past 30 years in which captive cetaceans were the research subjects.

That is a low output, considering the Aquarium’s statements about how important cetaceans are to its research – 13 in 30 years is very poor. 

Citation analysis (number of papers produced and number of citations per paper), found that the research Impact is also low, with relatively few citations – from a low of 0 citations to a high of 27. 

Not exactly a world changing research program at the Vancouver Aquarium. But now, all of a sudden it is “crucial.”

To say the least, all of this has left both the Vancouver Humane Society and Zoocheck skeptical about the Aquarium’s justifications for bringing back belugas to live in captivity.

To put it bluntly, we think they are being brought back because they are a lucrative tourist attraction, not because they are vital to cetacean research. 

Furthermore, we believe that decision is being made in spite of the strong and credible opposition of those who believe cetaceans suffer in captivity and that the Aquarium cannot justify that suffering.

That is why we believe the Aquarium should not import any more belugas and why it should end cetacean captivity.

Media Release

Vancouver Aquarium should end cetacean captivity now

Media release

February 20, 2017

Vancouver Aquarium should end cetacean captivity now

Vancouver – The Vancouver Humane Society (VHS) says the Vancouver Aquarium should end cetacean captivity now and not import more beluga whales to the facility. VHS says the aquarium’s announcement that it will import several belugas and put them on display until 2029 appears to be a tactic to pre-empt a potential decision by the Vancouver Park Board to end cetacean captivity much sooner. VHS spokesperson Peter Fricker said the aquarium should not waste its resources on expanding its captive cetacean facility. “The tanks should stay empty and the money should instead be used to work with the Whale Sanctuary Project.” The Whale Sanctuary Project is a non-profit group of scientists and other professionals working on the development of a seaside sanctuary for whales and dolphins who might be retired from entertainment facilities or rescued from injury or sickness in the wild. VHS is also concerned that the aquarium may use its rescue program as a loophole to acquire cetaceans for its new facility. “We worry that rather than aim for genuine rescue and release, the aquarium will aim for rescue and retain. They haven’t promised to end captivity, only the display of belugas.” VHS is skeptical about the aquarium’s claims to use the imported belugas for research. A report published by VHS and Zoocheck found that the value of the aquarium’s captive cetacean research to date is questionable.


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SeaWorld’s historic decision is lost on Vancouver Aquarium

beluga whales iStock_000005049794MediumLast week, SeaWorld announced that, effective immediately, it is ending its orca breeding program and will be phasing out its theatrical shows involving orcas.

While this is certainly welcome news for the future generations of these whales who would have been born into a life of captivity, sadly, it amounts to little for the existing generation in SeaWorld parks, who will remain captive “for as long as they live.” Nor does it extend the same compassion to SeaWorld’s other captive cetaceans, including belugas and dolphins, who can continue to be bred in captivity and perform for audiences.

What does it mean for cetaceans in captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium? “It doesn’t change anything,” according to the aquarium’s general manager, who commented on SeaWorld’s announcement while in Spain, where the Vancouver aquarium has taken over operations of the L’Oceanografic aquarium. The marine park is the largest in Europe and has 13 bottlenose dolphins, 10 of which were caught in the wild. It also has a pair of belugas caught in Russian waters.

Despite growing criticism and a recent documentary on the subject, the Vancouver Aquarium defends its breeding programs and the keeping of cetaceans in captivity. Even Dr. Jane Goodall has voiced her opposition, calling captive breeding “no longer defensible by science.” She went on to argue that “the idea that certain cetaceans ‘do better’ in captivity than others is also misleading, as belugas, dolphins and porpoises are highly social animals which can travel in large pods and migrate long distances.”

Goodall is not alone in her opposition to the breeding and keeping of cetaceans in captivity. Senator Wilfred Moore has introduced a federal bill that, if passed, would prohibit the acquisition and captive breeding of cetaceans in Canada. We encourage you to sign and help circulate this potentially historic bill.

There is still much work to do in order to afford other animals the same freedom from exploitation, but we must recognize the SeaWorld announcement for the historical moment that it is. It serves as a testament to the power of compassionate people over corporations. Together, we can build on this momentum and work toward the inevitable day when the captivity industry is a thing of the past. Join the annual Empty the Tanks worldwide rally, taking place at the Vancouver Aquarium on Saturday, May 7th, 11am and voice your opposition to the captivity industry.