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British Columbia Despite mystery over deaths, belugas to return to Vancouver aquarium

The outside of the Vancouver Aquarium is pictured in Vancouver, B.C. on Nov. 18, 2016. The aquarium announced that the Qila, a 21-year-old whale died Wednesday morning, a second whale is now being watched for similar symptoms.

Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Vancouver Aquarium plans to bring back beluga whales by the spring of 2019, despite not knowing what killed two of the mammals last November.

Dr. John Nightingale, aquarium chief executive officer and president, said he hopes to bring in three to five belugas, but the facility plans to discontinue the display of belugas by 2029. This is the same year the aquarium's lease expires with the Vancouver Park Board.

"We have not found a definitive cause as to how the animals died," the aquarium's head veterinarian Dr. Martin Haulena, said at a media event on Monday. They have not been able to rule out that something malicious happened.

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The aquarium's findings so far suggest it was a toxin that killed Qila, a 21-year-old beluga, and its 30-year-old mother, Aurora, 10 days later.

"It's the worst thing that has happened in my professional career" said Dr. Haulena.

The aquarium has spent more than $100,000 on an ongoing investigation into the belugas' deaths. Dr. Haulena said new belugas will not be brought into the facility until modifications have been made including increased security, better pest control and an examination of the run-off from soil surrounding the tank. Dr. Nightingale said the aquarium cannot guarantee there are no risks to the belugas, but it is trying to reduce them as much as possible.

He said the new belugas will be brought back primarily for research purposes and will be non-breeding.

He argues that the Arctic is changing at an unprecedented level and studying belugas in a controlled environment is necessary to better understand them.

The aquarium stopped bringing belugas into captivity in 1996. They research ones brought in before then, as well as those bred in captivity and ones that have been rescued and cannot be released. The aquarium still owns five belugas that are on loan outside of Vancouver.

"Some of our belugas are likely to come back," said Dr. Nightingale. It is unknown how many there will be, however there is a possibility that belugas not owned by the aquarium could be brought in since they all must be non-breeding.

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When the Park Board looked into bringing in a breeding ban two years ago, the aquarium said it wasn't possible.

"Now, they've turned around, done a 180 and said this is what they want to do," said Park Board Commissioner Stuart Mackinnon.

Plans to double the size of the beluga tank will continue to move forward as part of the aquarium's $100-million expansion, despite announcing that it will phase out the public display of belugas by 2029.

"Why would they invest that money if they have plans to phase them out in 12 years?" wonders Mr. Mackinnon. "If that's the case, why don't they just phase them out now?"

The commissioner thinks the announcement may be in anticipation of the next Park Board meeting that will debate the captivity of cetaceans. At an earlier meeting on Jan. 24, the board decided to wait on recommending a plebiscite in order to look into other options.

"This isn't them showing leadership," said former Park Board chair Aaron Jasper. "I think this is finally, begrudgingly, coming to terms with the reality that as a society and at the political level, attitudes have shifted away from their breeding practices."

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Mr. Jasper had proposed in 2014, a breeding ban on whales in captivity, but the bylaw wasn't passed.

"The lease is up in 2029," said the former chair. "I think they know that going forward, no board in good conscience, would renew a lease with an aquarium that was still going full-steam ahead with their breeding program."

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