March 8, 2017 6:17 pm
Updated: March 9, 2017 10:53 am

Vancouver Park Board debates future of cetaceans at Vancouver Aquarium

WATCH: As the Vancouver Park Board once again discusses the future of cetaceans at the Vancouver Aquarium, the Aquarium is speaking out tonight, saying it feels bullied by the board.

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Despite the Vancouver Aquarium vouching to shut down its beluga conservation program by 2029, the Vancouver Park Board held a special meeting Wednesday night to discuss the future of all cetaceans at their facility.

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Last month, the aquarium’s president, Dr. John Nightingale, promised to phase out the research program and discontinue the display of beluga whales in 12 years. He also announced plans to bring back some of their loaned belugas by 2019 and go ahead with the construction of two expanded whale pools.

READ MORE: Vancouver Aquarium shutting down beluga conservation program by 2029

On Wednesday night, Nightingale faced tough questions as the board discussed whether to call on the Vancouver City Council to hold a non-binding plebiscite on the issue during the 2018 municipal election. The plebiscite would determine if Vancouver residents support keeping cetaceans at the aquarium, which was an option that has been floated on many prior occasions both by animal rights activists and a Vancouver City Councillor.

Other options include accepting the aquarium’s announced plans to end the beluga program, amend the by-laws that regulate cetaceans in Vancouver parks or maintain the status quo.

READ MORE: Vancouver Aquarium beluga whale Aurora dies at age 30

The aquarium’s announcement about the end of the beluga conservation program came several months after the unexpected deaths of two resident beluga whales —  30-year-old Aurora and her offspring, 21-year-old Qila — just 10 days apart.

The park board says since the beluga deaths, it has seen a resurgence of public concern regarding cetaceans in captivity.

It says there are ongoing protests being held at board meetings and at the Vancouver Aquarium, as well as multiple online petitions against captivity and email campaigns targeting elected Park Board and City officials.

In January, Park Board Chair Sarah Kirby-Yung brought forward a notice of motion to include a plebiscite question about cetaceans in captivity on the 2018 municipal ballot. The motion further requested that the aquarium consider not bringing more cetaceans into the facility until after the results of the 2018 plebiscite are received.

This motion was referred to staff to report back with more information about the process of holding a plebiscite and to outline other options for the board to consider before making a decision, which was deferred to tonight’s meeting.

The back and forth between the Park Board and aquarium on this issue goes back several years.

In 2014, the board approved a motion directing staff to propose a by-law that restricts cetacean breeding in Vancouver parks and to establish a committee of animal welfare experts to provide oversight of the cetacean program at the Vancouver Aquarium.

In response, the Vancouver Aquarium launched legal action to challenge the authority of the Park Board to enact the breeding ban.

Since then five cetaceans died in aquarium’s care, including Aurora and Qila.

Currently, only three cetaceans remain at the aquarium — including a harbour porpoise, a Pacific white-sided dolphin and a false killer whale. However, there are currently five beluga whales on loan to other aquariums in the United States.

With more than 60 people registered to speak, the debate will continue Thursday night.

-With files from Jon Azpiri

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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