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Disappointment prevails after board bans breeding of marine mammals

Vancouver Aquarium marine mammal trainers Kristi Heffron and Jenna Petersen work with beluga Aurora April 11, 2014.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

One day after Vancouver's park board voted to ban the breeding of beluga whales and dolphins at the city aquarium, it was under fire from both sides of the debate – with some saying the board didn't go far enough and introduced unenforceable measures, and the aquarium accusing the board of playing politics.

The board voted in favour of the breeding ban, except in cases in which a species is threatened, at a third meeting on cetacean captivity Thursday night. It did not order the aquarium to end its captivity of belugas, Pacific white-sided dolphins, and harbour porpoises, to the clear disappointment of animal-rights activists and the two board members who pushed most forcefully on the issue. The board's chair said the breeding ban and establishment of a cetacean oversight committee struck the appropriate balance.

The aquarium's president, however, exhibited no signs of relief. John Nightingale accused the board of putting the aquarium "in peril" and shifting control from its scientific experts to politicians. But the board has said the oversight committee would not be made up of politicians. The ban does not appear to prohibit the aquarium from bringing in other cetaceans that it has rescued or bred elsewhere.

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The aquarium has said its beluga whales and dolphins educate the public. It has said the cetaceans receive "exceptional care" and the facility is the only one in the country that can provide a long-term home for marine mammals deemed non-releasable by government authorities. It has also said its financial viability would be threatened without cetaceans.

On Friday, the common theme among those invested in the issue was disappointment.

Dave Duffus, an associate professor of geography at the University of Victoria and director of its Whale Research Lab, said he would like the captivity of the cetaceans to end and had hoped the board would move firmly in that direction.

"I think the aquarium won," he said in an interview.

Prof. Duffus described the breeding ban as a notable first step, and said the only reason to breed captive cetaceans is for show. He questioned the importance of the research that has flowed from the practice.

Andrew Trites, a fisheries professor at the University of British Columbia, said he was pleased the aquarium would be permitted to keep its cetaceans, but "puzzled" it would not be allowed to breed them. He questioned how the process would work in situations in which marine mammals of the opposite sex – such as the two porpoises – are already housed together.

The beluga enclosure, which has been the flashpoint in the debate, holds a mother and her daughter. The aquarium does, however, have ownership of nine belugas in all, with five currently housed at SeaWorld and two at the Georgia Aquarium.

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When asked whether the breeding ban would have much effect, or whether the Vancouver aquarium could simply work around it by breeding the animals at a U.S. facility or rescuing additional cetaceans, Prof. Trites said it shouldn't have to take such a step.

"Is that really how you want to conduct business?" he asked.

Prof. Trites has a relationship with the Vancouver aquarium, having used its space for sea-lion research for more than two decades. He said he has not been paid by the facility.

Annelise Sorg, of the group No Whales in Captivity, said the hurried park-board process was "a farce" and the measures "irrelevant." She, too, questioned how the board would prohibit cetacean breeding. She said the only way to end the captivity is through a referendum, which has already been ruled out for the November civic election.

Mr. Nightingale released an open letter Friday, in which he said it would be "unnatural" to prohibit the cetaceans from breeding. He said the park board's decision was political and not based on the facts. He said the aquarium will take some time to consider its options.

Aaron Jasper, the park board's chair, said after Thursday's meeting that there is nothing natural about having whales in captivity.

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"They're in a tank. It's not natural. … It's a necessary evil to have these whales in captivity," he said.

Mr. Jasper referenced the fact that three aquarium belugas died between 2005 and 2011 and teared up as he talked about the possibility of some day having to explain to his young children that another whale had passed away.

Niki Sharma, a board commissioner, said at the meeting that it would be important to have animal-welfare experts on the oversight committee. She said decisions involving the cetaceans would not be left to a political body.

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