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The park board’s vice-chair, Constance Barnes, says keeping beluga whales and dolphins in captivity is ‘unacceptable.’

JOHN LEHMANN/GLOBE AND MAIL

Two park board commissioners say the Vancouver aquarium should not have whales or dolphins and the issue could end up on this fall's municipal election ballot – although the aquarium says the cetaceans inspire and inform the public and are treated very well.

The debate has resurfaced as the aquarium undergoes a $100-million facelift, and as a documentary that criticizes an aquarium in the United States for its treatment of whales and dolphins makes waves in the United States.

Constance Barnes, the park board's vice-chair, said in an interview on Tuesday that keeping beluga whales and dolphins in captivity is "unacceptable."

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She said she and park board commissioner Sarah Blyth – both of whom were moved by the documentary Blackfish – will meet with Mayor Gregor Robertson and council soon to discuss the issue.

Ms. Barnes said several options are available. Vancouverites could vote on the future whales and dolphins at the aquarium in a binding referendum or a non-binding plebiscite, or council could alter a bylaw involving the aquarium when it is reviewed next year.

An online petition calling for a referendum in the fall has garnered more than 11,500 signatures – although at least some of the people appear to live outside Vancouver, if not outside B.C.

Ms. Barnes said the issue has always weighed heavily with her. She recalled visiting the Stanley Park zoo – and its lone polar bear – before voters opted to phase the facility out.

Ms. Blyth said the aquarium does great work on animal rescues and conservation. "But keeping whales in captivity – I think we've moved beyond that," she said in an interview.

John Nightingale, the aquarium's president and chief executive officer, said he was surprised and frustrated by the commissioners' stand.

Mr. Nightingale said it has been nearly two decades since the Vancouver aquarium became the first in the world to commit to no longer capturing wild cetaceans. He said the aquarium pledged to care for only those that were deemed non-releasable by government authorities, born in a zoo or aquarium, already in a zoo or aquarium, or captured before 1996, when the commitment was signed.

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He said the aquarium views itself as a conservation society – it breeds endangered species, and supports field research and conservation. He said the aquarium's financial viability would be "questionable" without the whales and dolphins – its primary public engagement tools.

When asked if the facility's beluga tanks are large enough, Mr. Nightingale said they are larger than the regulations require and will be about twice that size after the expansion and revitalization.

He said Blackfish has generated interest about mammals in captivity, but beluga whales and the orcas in the film are very different. He said belugas are "pretty much an ideal animal to have in an aquarium" because they are not long-distance swimmers.

"Killer whales are huge animals. They're the Ferrari of the whale world. A beluga whale is the Volkswagen bus of the whale world," he said.

Ms. Barnes disagreed, and said whales need to roam.

She said if a decision is made to stop having whales or dolphins, the ones at the aquarium would not simply be released. She said a more likely scenario is that no ones would be allowed after the current ones died.

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A spokesman for Mr. Robertson said the mayor was in meetings and not available for an interview. He would not indicate the mayor's stand on the issue.

A California bill inspired by Blackfish that could have ended killer whale shows at SeaWorld in San Diego was put on hold on Tuesday for further study. The bill likely will not be revisited until mid-2015.

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