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(JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

GARY MASON

Empty the whale tanks – just not these ones Add to ...

If you’ve ever entertained the notion of visiting the Vancouver Aquarium to view the few dolphins and whales on display, you’d better get there fast. The environmentalists are coming to get them.

The aquarium is facing an all-out assault on its cetacean research program, which has garnered accolades around the world for its contribution to ocean study. Chimp expert Jane Goodall is the latest to call for the aquarium to stop keeping marine mammals in captivity. Even Mayor Gregor Robertson wants the whale and dolphin exhibition phased out. Recently, about 50 people gathered outside the aquarium with signs and placards, calling for the institution to “empty the tanks” and release the mammals back into the wild.

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The fact that many of the protesters held up signs that blatantly distorted the picture of what’s been going on beyond the aquarium’s walls mattered little. In a public-relations war, the first victim is often the truth.

While I certainly share the view that capturing whales and dolphins in the wild to make them circus acts at profit centres such as SeaWorld is wrong, I also believe that what’s going on here is decidedly different.

The Vancouver Aquarium is the first and only in the world to commit to not capturing cetaceans from the wild for display. It made that commitment 18 years ago. Today, the facility cares for whales, dolphins and porpoises that were either born at the aquarium or rescued and deemed non-releasable by independent government authorities.

The aquarium’s Pacific dolphins are not from a drive fishery (where the fish are funnelled into a bay or beach for easy capture) or from Taiji, Japan, as some those recently protesting outside the grounds of the marine centre would have you believe.

The annual dolphin hunt in Taiji has become an international disgrace. Hundreds of dolphins are either slaughtered for human consumption or captured and shipped off to water zoos around the world. But the aquarium’s two dolphins were rescued after becoming entangled in fishing nets. They were found in extremely poor condition and shipped to Vancouver to be rehabilitated. It was ultimately determined that they would never be fit enough to return to the wild. Meantime, they have been used to perform important research by some of the top marine experts in the world, who use the Vancouver Aquarium as their field laboratory.

On that front, you won’t meet a more committed and compassionate group of environmentalists than the ones who work at the aquarium. When an animal dies from a disease that could just as easily have afflicted a creature in the wild, the workers take it personally. Many of the mammals they care for live longer than those in the ocean.

Kavna was 46 when she died in 2012 from age-related cancer. She was beloved and the inspiration for Raffi’s perhaps most famous song, Baby Beluga. It didn’t stop animal-rights activists from using a picture of the dead whale, taken from a hovering news helicopter, to suggest Kavna’s death was akin to murder.

For years, scientists at the aquarium have conducted vital ocean research. A sound study underway now is aimed at helping understand how Pacific white-sided dolphins navigate ocean waters using sound. The hope is that this investigation helps explain why they continue to become entangled in fishing nets. Each year, more than 300,000 cetaceans die as involuntary by-catch.

In their protests, environmentalists have turned their sights on one of Canada’s most successful and important non-profit conservation organizations. The aquarium is about to embark on a new era of research on the West Coast under the auspices of the Coastal Ocean Research Institute. Admission fees and donations are used to fund an array of programs, such as the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, which has helped rehabilitate hundreds of injured animals before releasing them back into the wild.

Marine attraction centres that capture cetaceans solely for the betterment of someone’s bottom line should be closed tomorrow. But the Vancouver Aquarium is not one of them, and its whale and dolphin program is not cruel toward animals. If it was, the committed staff there would have left long ago.

I would suggest that Dr. Goodall and others do a little more research before calling for its end.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

 

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