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Vancouver councillors reject putting whale question on the ballot

Qila, a Beluga at the Vancouver Aquarium is prepared for an ultrasound on April 14, 2014. Vancouver residents won’t be voting in November on whether whales and other cetaceans should be kept in captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

Vancouver residents won't be voting in November on whether whales and other cetaceans should be kept in captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium.

Green Party Councillor Adriane Carr's motion for putting the question on the ballot of the Nov. 15 election was rejected by all other councillors, largely over concerns that city council would be stepping on the jurisdiction of the city's park board.

Ms. Carr said council missed an opportunity to allow members of the public to express their opinion by casting a vote, which could then be used to inform the Vancouver Park Board in its revie of the aquarium operations.

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"I feel really disappointed in my fellow councillors that they didn't take that responsibility on," Ms. Carr said.

"Citizens are saying, 'We really want a public discussion, we really want a chance to cast a ballot on this.' To deny them that is not good."

The park board passed a motion this week asking staff to review the aquarium's current operations related to cetaceans and report back to the board by July, 2014.

This process comes ahead of the board's scheduled 2015 review of its bylaw regarding captive cetaceans.

The question of whether the Vancouver Aquarium should be keeping belugas and dolphins in captivity was raised at the parks board earlier this month, with at least some suggesting the animals should be phased out. The issue arose after a popular documentary, Blackfish, criticized practices around the captivity of orcas and dolphins in aquariums in the U.S.

The debate has resurfaced as the aquarium undergoes a $100-million facelift.

Earlier this month, Constance Barnes, the park board's vice-chair, said keeping beluga whales and dolphins in captivity is "unacceptable."

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She said if a decision is made to stop keeping whales or dolphins, the ones at the aquarium would not simply be released. She said a more likely scenario would be that the aquarium would not get any more after the current ones died.

In a statement released in early April, Mayor Gregor Robertson said he was hopeful that the Vancouver Aquarium and the park board could come to an agreement on how to phase out the holding of whales and dolphins in captivity.

At council on Wednesday, several public speakers said they supported having a plebiscite in the coming election. An online petition calling for a vote had almost 15,500 signatures, although some of the signatures may belong to people who live outside of Vancouver and B.C.

Councillor Kerry Jang said he was "uncomfortable" with Ms. Carr's motion, despite his personal feelings on the issue of cetaceans in captivity. Mr. Jang said the move would mean council would be pre-empting the park board's work.

Only Ms. Carr voted for her motion.

Dr. John Nightingale, president of the Vancouver Aquarium, said the aquarium supports the review process that the park board approved on April 28.

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"[It's] the proper way to go," he said.

Park board commissioner Sarah Blyth said the board is confident in its review process and the public's view will be taken into consideration.

"We're looking forward to everything coming back – all the information from the aquarium, and also the public who wants to speak about it.

"Then we'll figure out what the next steps are."

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