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Qila, a beluga at the Vancouver Aquarium, is prepared for an ultrasound on April 14, 2014. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Qila, a beluga at the Vancouver Aquarium, is prepared for an ultrasound on April 14, 2014. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Vancouver Aquarium challenges cetacean breeding ban in court Add to ...

The Vancouver Aquarium has filed a legal challenge to a recent park-board decision to ban the breeding of captive cetaceans, arguing that to do so would jeopardize its rescue and research programs.

It is also rejecting a Vancouver Park Board resolution to create an oversight committee whose purpose, according to the park board, would be to ensure the well-being of all cetaceans owned by the aquarium. Cetaceans are marine mammals such as dolphins and whales.

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The aquarium filed the legal challenge in B.C. Supreme Court on Wednesday, president and CEO John Nightingale said at a news conference.

“Our marine mammal rescue program will be compromised by the ban on breeding cetaceans,” he said. “Further, a ban on breeding cetaceans is both impractical and unwise, from an animal-care and animal-welfare standpoint.”

The aquarium is arguing that the Vancouver Park Board’s resolutions, unanimously carried on July 31, “serve no legitimate municipal purpose and are beyond the jurisdiction” of the park board. The elected body’s decisions are politically motivated and undermine the expertise of scientists and researchers who have helped make the aquarium’s accredited marine science centre a world leader, Dr. Nightingale said.

He added that to create an oversight committee – which the park board said would comprise animal-welfare experts and prepare biannual reports on the well-being of the aquarium’s cetaceans – would be to hand over decision-making to an external group, jeopardizing the aquarium’s standing in the marine science community.

“Professional accrediting bodies require professional experts to make appropriate animal-care decisions,” Dr. Nightingale said.

While the aquarium has denied ever having a formal breeding program, Dr. Nightingale said cetaceans at the facility kept in mixed-sex groups have conceived naturally through mating.

Beluga whale Aurora gave birth to Qila at the Vancouver Aquarium in 1995, marking the first time a beluga whale was conceived and born in a Canadian aquarium. Two of Aurora’s other calves, Tuvaq and Nala died young: Tuvaq at three years, Nala at one year. Qila’s calf, Tiqa, died at three. (Captive belugas are thought to have an average life expectancy of 25 to 30 years.)

The aquarium now owns nine belugas in all: two in Vancouver, two in Georgia and five at various SeaWorld facilities. Two of its males are believed to have sired at least a dozen calves – including several that were stillborn or have since died – since 2006 as part of breeding programs in the United States. In one Seaworld study, semen was collected from Vancouver Aquarium beluga Nanuq 42 times and subsequently used for 10 insemination attempts with seven females. This resulted in two pregnancies, one of which was twin calves.

Aaron Jasper, chair of the Vancouver Park Board, said that is enough to show that the aquarium does have a breeding program.

“The whales out there are the product of breeding, between Vancouver whales and other whales,” he said. “They have a breeding program. And that’s where I come back to saying … we think we struck the right balance between respecting the good work the aquarium does, with respect to research and education, but also the changing attitudes on the appropriateness, or the ethics, of keeping large marine mammals in captivity.”

Sandy Garossino, a former Crown prosecutor and community advocate who has written about the issue, said it boils down to the aquarium not being forthright with the public.

“That is the bottom line: They have been content to have the public misunderstand the real circumstances. They still haven’t really come clean. I just think there is something fishy about their relationship with SeaWorld.”

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