Two young girls watch as Tiqa the two-year old beluga whale swims at the Vancouver Aquarium in Stanley Park, Tuesday, August 3, 2010. The Vancouver Aquarium is defending itself after the city's mayor expressed his personal beliefs against whales and dolphins in captivity.

Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Mayor Gregor Robertson says the Vancouver Aquarium should stop keeping whales and dolphins in captivity, an election-year stand that aquarium officials say could hinder the conservation work done there.

Mr. Robertson's statement coincides with a move by the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation to take a closer look at the issue. The mayor is ramping up to seek a third term when voters go to the polls in November.

"My personal view is that the Vancouver Aquarium should begin to phase out the holding of whales and dolphins in captivity," Mr. Robertson said in a statement on Wednesday.

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"I'm hopeful that the Aquarium and the park board can work collaboratively to come to an agreement on how to achieve this with a dialogue and review that will be informed, thoughtful and inclusive."

However, the mayor said he did not support the idea of a city-wide referendum on the issue – an option suggested by Constance Barnes, the vice-chair of the city's park board and a member of Mr. Robertson's Vision Vancouver party.

"The ability to phase out the holding of whales and dolphins in captivity is within the park board's authority," the mayor said.

Sarah Blyth, a park board commissioner, also says the aquarium should not have whales or dolphins.

Mr. Robertson saluted the aquarium for its work on conservation and research, highlighting the venerable institution's role in educating the public about the importance of protecting local waters and the marine environment.

"It is a huge draw for local residents and tourists alike, and one of the highlights of Stanley Park," he said.

About two decades ago, the aquarium was the first in the world to commit to no longer capturing wild cetaceans.

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On Wednesday, the chair of the park board said he will ask board staff to look at the issue to help the board take a position.

Aaron Jasper said he is looking for a report on best practices around the world in treatment of cetaceans in captivity, as well as the aquarium's policies on cetacean rehabilitation and an overview of current agreements between the park board and the aquarium.

"On a personal level, I wrestle with this one – the ethics of whales in captivity," he said in an interview.

He did not rule out a vote on ending the captivity of whales and dolphins, but said there is an obligation to make sure such a discussion is based on facts "not emotion."

All of this comes amid a debate climate created by the release of the documentary Blackfish, which criticizes practices around the captivity of whales and dolphins in the United States. Both commissioners said they were moved by the popular film.

In a statement, the aquarium said it is "unfortunate" representatives of the institution had not had the opportunity to talk to Mr. Robertson before he issued his statement.

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"We appreciate the fact that he is very supportive of the Aquarium, and we recognize he has personal feelings, but believe he might not understand the vital role belugas and dolphins play in our important conservation efforts."

The aquarium said having the creatures on site helps educate the public, that they receive "exceptional care," and the institution is Canada's only facility that can provide a long-term home to marine animals deemed non-releasable by government authorities.

George Affleck, a councillor with the opposition NPA party, said on Wednesday that the mayor and park board members are trying to use the issue to rally young voters to secure an edge in this fall's municipal elections.

Mr. Affleck noted that the aquarium is in the midst of a $100-million renovation and a major review of policies concerning whales and dolphins is due in 2015.

He said the NPA supports the status quo.

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B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More