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Plan to poll Vancouverites on captive whales appears doomed

A motion to poll Vancouverites on keeping whales and dolphins at the city's aquarium is heading for defeat at Monday's park board meeting.

Less than a month after the death of the Vancouver Aquarium's youngest whale, Green Party park board commissioner Stuart Mackinnon plans to introduce a motion calling for a referendum during the 2011 civic election. The question would be whether Vancouverites approve of keeping cetaceans in captivity in the city's parks or whether such exhibits should be phased out.

"For me, it's a matter of cruelty - taking these large mammals that have ranges of thousands of miles and putting them in a small tank is just cruel," Mr. Mackinnon said.

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If passed, the plebiscite could spell the end of cetaceans at the aquarium. The aquarium's lease in Stanley Park is up in 2015, and banning the mammals could be a condition of renewal.

The proposal, however, seems dead in the water. To pass, a motion needs the support of at least four of the seven park board commissioners.

Vision Vancouver commissioners Aaron Jasper, Sarah Blyth and Raj Hundal, along with the Non-Partisan Alliance's Ian Robertson, told The Globe and Mail they would vote against the proposal.

The "irresponsible" and "reckless" motion puts Vancouver residents at risk for a lawsuit, said board chair Mr. Jasper, who believes the cetaceans have educational value.

Mr. Jasper said that a 2011 plebiscite could cause the aquarium financial hardship and compromise its funding for an expansion plan -all of which would be grounds for a lawsuit.

"The aquarium and the park board signed an agreement with the understanding that this matter would not be reviewed until 2015," he said. "We should just honour it."

But Mr. Mackinnon said the 2011 civic election is the last chance for a referendum before the 2015 review date if the province extends election terms to four years.

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The aquarium's five whales and three dolphins are its most popular attractions. Losing the cetaceans could also mean a financial hit for the park board because of lost spinoffs such as parking, Mr. Jasper said.

"The idea that we would be making money off of something I think is wrong makes the money wrong," Mr. Mackinnon said.

Aquarium president John Nightingale was unavailable for comment on Thursday, but the facility released a statement saying it "strongly opposes" the motion and would address it at the meeting.

Nala, a one-year-old Beluga, died at the aquarium in June after an inflamed pocket containing two rocks and a penny developed off her airway, blocking the passage and allowing her lungs to fill with fluid. Her death touched off a debate in Vancouver about whether whales should be kept at the facility.

Annelies McConnachie-Howarth, a member of Whale Friends, said Nala's death has created momentum in the city for a ban on cetaceans at the aquarium.

"I'm over the moon," she said of the news of Mr. Mackinnon's motion. "It's been a long time in coming."

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Plebiscites in Vancouver are not unprecedented. The Stanley Park Zoo, which operated for more than a century, was shut in 1997 after 54 per cent of Vancouverites voted to close it in a 1993 referendum.

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About the Author
Washington correspondent

Adrian Morrow covers U.S. politics from Washington, D.C. Previously he was The Globe's Ontario politics reporter. He's covered news, crime and sports for The Globe since 2010. He won the National Newspaper Award for politics reporting in 2016. More

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