In May, less than six months after Lasse Gustavsson took charge of the Vancouver Aquarium, the facility sued Vancouver’s city council and park board over a 2017 decision to ban the showing of cetaceans.
It was an aggressive move signalling Ocean Wise, the aquarium’s parent company, is not interested in repairing its sour relations with city hall. The aquarium operates in the city’s signature Stanley Park by virtue of a park board lease which the board threatened not to renew unless the aquarium complied with the ban. It was a decision in step with worldwide trends.
There is an increasing sentiment that keeping large ocean mammals in pens is inhumane, and many European and American aquariums have stopped displaying whales, dolphins and porpoises. Some of the world’s best-known aquariums continue to thrive, despite the absence of these show-stopping mammals, which the Vancouver Aquarium asserts are still a huge audience draw.
The lawsuit states Vancouver Aquarium attendance dropped 13 per cent in the two years after the cetacean ban – an $8-million loss over 2016 numbers. The suit also says the edict cost the aquarium a $7.5-million private donation for a proposed new Arctic exhibit and resulted in money squandered on expansion plans which initially centred around beluga displays. It further notes the aquarium continues to pay the city and park board annual licence fees of more than $290,000 a year, despite the city’s orders it drop cetaceans from its roster.
There are, of course, other possible explanations for the losses. The aquarium’s last two belugas, one dolphin and a false killer whale all died between November, 2016 and 2017 – horrible optics for an organization fighting for its right to show cetaceans. It’s possible the deaths were a turnoff for some attendees and donors; that is for the courts to decide.
But the very fact the aquarium is suing the city for damages is galling – a bit like a guest suing a host for serving vegetarian food. It speaks to an attitude of entitlement and disregard for elected officials forced to arm-twist the aquarium to adapt to society’s changing views. A 2018 Angus Reid poll shows 47 per cent of Canadians believe keeping cetaceans in captivity should be banned, in contrast to the 21 per cent who say it should be allowed. The rest weren’t sure.
What is certain is that the Vancouver Aquarium, under the former leadership of John Nightingale, was pathologically unable to change with the times. Mr. Nightingale argued there is great good to be gained from cetacean displays, both from a public and scientific educational perspective. Those arguments always seemed self-serving because he also bemoaned the negative impact losing cetaceans would have on the aquarium’s financial health. Still, Mr. Nightingale defended his position to the bitter end, perhaps longing for the halcyon days when practically every Vancouver Volvo sported a Vancouver Aquarium bumper sticker and few questioned the ethics of keeping whales in captivity.
So where does the aquarium’s new president Mr. Gustavsson stand on the matter? I tried to ask, but was told he was unavailable for comment. A statement from Ocean Wise said the aquarium is committed to honouring its commitment not to show cetaceans, except for whales or dolphins that “need emergent temporary care.” But it is interesting to note that an earlier court challenge to the park board’s ability to dictate the aquarium’s business through its lease is still winding its way through the courts. Animal activist Jeff Matthews recently met with Mr. Gustavsson and said the new president talked about a rescue program and a “laboratory with glass walls.” Mr. Matthews said it seemed clear the aquarium still wants to display rescued animals.
This, too, is old-school thinking. The newest push is to house rescued cetaceans in sanctuaries – ocean bays where they can live in their natural environment. Baltimore is going that route and a group called The Whale Sanctuary Project is pushing for something similar in British Columbia.
Wouldn’t it be nice if the Vancouver Aquarium could ditch the notion that in order to care about cetaceans, people need to see them in person? Instead, why not lead the charge for a sanctuary where sick or injured cetaceans can live out their lives in far more natural conditions?
Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs.