Vancouver's park board has opted not to phase out the captivity of beluga whales and dolphins at the city aquarium, voting instead for further study and an end only to the breeding of cetaceans in captivity.
The board reached its decision at a special meeting Thursday night. It voted in favour of further research on cetacean well-being, the establishment of an oversight committee, and a bylaw amendment that would prohibit the breeding of captive cetaceans unless the species is threatened.
The aquarium took no solace in avoiding a full phase-out of whales and dolphins, however, with its chief executive officer saying he was "deeply disappointed" in the result.
The meeting was the third on the captivity issue, which resurfaced in April when two park board commissioners and later the mayor voiced their opposition to holding the two belugas and two dolphins at the aquarium.
Aaron Jasper, the park board's chair, said after Thursday's meeting that he wants to see the aquarium continue its good work. But he said it was important to acknowledge the concerns raised by residents and public speakers about cetaceans in captivity.
"I think we probably struck the right balance. I'm sure there's many folks out there that will say we didn't go far enough. I'm sure there's many folks here that think we've gone too far," he told reporters.
The vote means the aquarium can keep its existing whales and dolphins. Those animals could live for decades more. The aquarium, however, would not be able to breed them.
Park board commissioner Constance Barnes – who along with fellow commissioner Sarah Blyth first spoke out about the aquarium and cetaceans – said during the meeting the recommendations were an important first step.
"You can't do it all overnight," she said.
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.
John Nightingale, the aquarium's president and chief executive officer, has questioned whether the aquarium could survive financially without the cetaceans.
Mr. Nightingale, after the vote, said he felt he had failed to deliver his message to the commissioners.
"I'm most deeply disappointed in the park board's decision to take management of the animals, and to some degree our whole mission, away from the experts at the aquarium and transfer it to the politicians," he told reporters.
Mr. Nightingale said the board's decision could put some aspects of the aquarium "in peril." He said the vote could be chalked up to naivete, since the park board commissioners have never taken care of a marine mammal.
He said the aquarium does not operate a formal breeding program, but healthy marine mammals sometimes mate. He said depriving them of that would be akin to animal cruelty.
Errol Povah, a protester opposed to cetaceans in captivity, said after the meeting he, too, was disappointed in the result.
"It's certainly a step in the direction we want to go, but it's nowhere near what we wanted," he said.
The park board heard from speakers on both sides of the issue. Some said the aquarium was the reason they got into marine biology and called its research invaluable. Others – including those behind the documentaries "The Cove" and "Blackfish" – wrote to or told the board it would be impossible for an aquarium to give whales and dolphins the space and social conditions they need.
The board commissioned an independent review on cetaceans at the aquarium from Dr. Joseph Gaydos, chief scientist of the Wildlife Health Center's SeaDoc Society Program at the University of California, Davis. His report, however, did not take a stance on captivity and effectively called for more long-term research.
Mr. Jasper had said he wanted a decision on cetaceans to be made before the November civic election, so it didn't become an election issue.
That, however, has not been the case. Kirk LaPointe, the Non-Partisan Association's candidate for mayor, earlier this week blasted Mayor Gregor Robertson for his stance on the aquarium. Mr. LaPointe said he supports the work the aquarium is doing.
Four former mayors – Mike Harcourt, Philip Owen, Larry Campbell, and Sam Sullivan – have also expressed their support for the aquarium.