ABOVE: Aquarium President and CEO John Nightingale says he’s “disappointed” in Park Board ban
The Vancouver Aquarium isn’t ruling out legal action in the wake of a new Park Board ban on cetaceans in captivity.
Speaking with Jon McComb on Tuesday, Aquarium President and CEO John Nightingale says the facility is still looking at the repercussions of the board’s new by-law.
“In less than five months the Park Board has done a U-Turn from a new Canada’s Arctic [exhibit] that they had approved and permitted to no cetaceans at all. So we’re still trying to understand what those impacts are, and understands what our options are. And right now we’re going to keep every option open until we can understand the situation,” he says.
Under the ban, cetaceans that already live at the Aquarium will be allowed to stay, but no new whales, dolphins, or porpoises – rescue or otherwise – would be permitted on Park Board land.
“Some of those display pools which are now eventually not going to have animals to live in, those are investments of $10-million to $20-million. You don’t just turn on a dime.”
Nightingale says the ban won’t kill the Aquarium, but would definitely have an economic impact, leaving the non-profit facility “diminished” in its capabilities.
“What it may kill is all the things the community loves and values about the Aquarium. So the education programs, the conservation work, the rescue work. That’s what’s at risk.”
Nightingale says the ban, which he lays at the feet of a small, vocal group of internationally funded activists, will mean a death sentence for some injured animals.
He says that’s a combination of loss of dollars the cetacean program brings in to support the marine mammal rescue program, and the Aquarium’s role in providing a physical home for animals that can’t be fully rehabilitated.
“Animals like the false killer whale Chester would have been either left to die on Chesterman beach, or the DFO would have had to put a bullet in him. Instead he was rescued.”
Nightingale admits letting nature take its course and allowing marine mammals to die in the wild is an option, but says it becomes difficult when they are the focus of media attention, like a stranded whale.
As for whether the Aquarium might pack up and move out of Stanley Park, where it would no longer be under the Park Board’s authority, Nightingale says it’s possible but not practical.
“You can’t do it at the rescue centre, which is akin to a hospital. You go to a hospital, you get well — you either go back to normal life or you need long-term care and it’s exactly the same for marine mammals,” he says.
He says new pools would come with a cost in the tens of millions of dollars, with several million more per year in operating costs.
“Given these new conditions, it’s hard to imagine, absent a giant injection of money from the city of Vancouver, how it can work.”
LISTEN: Parks Commissioner Sarah Kirby-Yung responds
But Parks Commissioner Sarah Kirby-Yung says Nightingale is engaging in fear mongering and using the rescue program a shield for its plans to keep displaying whales and dolphins.
“The aquarium’s goal clearly was to keep their cetacean population and their belugas. In fact, they wanted to bring back all of their belugas from the five facilities they were at in the U.S., and spend tens of millions of dollars expanding the beluga habitiat.”
Kirby-Yung disputes the Aquarium’s claims that the public supports keeping the animals in captivity, saying in the run up to the ban it received 2,000 more emails opposing captivity than supporting it.
And she says Nightingale is being disingenuous when he says banning cetaceans would destroy the rescue program.
“The majority of the animals that the aquarium rescues are harbour seals. They rehabilitate them very successfully and release them. There are a lot of other models for rehabilitation.”
She points to the aquarium in Baltimore which has committed to building sea pens, or similar facilities in California where she says they deal with four times as many rescued cetaceans.
“Even by the Aquarium’s own admission, Chester the false killer whale that they rescued here they can no longer keep at the Aquarium. They said he’s going to become too big and he’s not a candidate to be there.”