January 18, 2018 1:30 pm
Updated: January 19, 2018 2:40 pm

Vancouver Aquarium will no longer house whales and dolphins

The Vancouver Aquarium had vowed to fight a Park Board vote that banned cetaceans at their facility. But eight months later, the aquarium is now bowing to public pressure -- announcing a future without showing whales, dolphins and porpoises in captivity. But what does it mean for the Stanley Park institution? Linda Aylesworth found out.

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The Vancouver Aquarium announced Thursday it will no longer house whales and dolphins in its facility.

While it will continue to focus on ocean conservation and informing the public about sea life, it will do so without cetaceans in Stanley Park.

“Having significantly contributed to tens of millions of people caring about whales and dolphins over the past four decades, Vancouver Aquarium will now focus on raising awareness of ocean issues impacting other marine animals and will no longer display cetaceans at its facility, with the exception of doing what is best for Pacific white-sided dolphin Helen and any need to use the Aquarium for the temporary accommodation of a rescued cetacean,” said Vancouver Aquarium and Ocean Wise CEO and president, Dr. John Nightingale in a release.

WATCH: What’s the future of the Vancouver Aquarium without whales and dolphins?

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Helen is the last cetacean currently living at the Aquarium — though the facility owns several belugas on breeding loan to U.S. facilities.

“After many years in professional care and with only partial flippers, Helen is not a candidate for release,” said Nightingale. “However, dolphins are a social species so finding companionship for her is paramount.”

Last March, the Vancouver Park Board voted to end cetacean captivity at Vancouver Aquarium.

READ MORE: Park Board votes to ban cetacean captivity at Vancouver Aquarium

The aquarium vowed to fight the ruling but Nightingale now confirms the facility will move forward without cetaceans.

Although the legal challenge is not over.

“The whole debate was obstructing us moving forward as one of the leading global organizations working on ocean conservation,” said Nightingale. “So we will continue the legal challenge. While it was about whales and dolphins that was the subject, what is really is about is it proper for a government agency to use a by-law to tear up a valid contract? So there are many implications beyond whales and dolphins.”

“After the Park Board decided what they did and the way they went about it, we said don’t think that’s proper, so we filed for a judicial review before the B.C. Supreme Court. That’s underway, we’ll continue. The important points are around whales and dolphins, what’s still proponent about that is that it impedes our rescue program which we remain committed to rescuing any animal.”

LISTEN: Jon McComb speaks with Dr. John Nightingale

He does acknowledge they were a tremendous asset to teaching people about what’s going on in the world’s oceans.

“That’s why we fought so hard to keep them,” said Nightingale. “But at some point you have to be realistic. And the controversy and continuing battle in the community was basically road blocking us from our mission and all the other things that we’re doing what we can to ensure there’s some stability and positivity for the world’s oceans.”

One of the more vocal critics of the aquarium’s beluga program was documentary maker Gary Charbonneau. Charbonneau’s film “Vancouver Aquarium Uncovered” — or at least the legal battle around it — focused public attention on the program which was already considered controversial by some.

Charbonneau told Global News he was just as surprised as anyone else about Thursday’s announcement.

“I don’t think too many people expected that; for (Nightingale) to say personally he’s ending captivity, that says quite a lot about the pressure he’s under.”

Elsewhere, the Vancouver Park Board has released a statement saying it is “pleased” with the situation.

However, this September construction will still go ahead on the Canada’s Arctic exhibit featuring species from coldwater corals to Arctic pinnipeds, such as seals and walruses.

It is scheduled to open in 2019.

WATCH: Coverage of the Vancouver Aquarium on Globalnews.ca:

READ MORE: Chester the false killer whale dies at the Vancouver Aquarium

The Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre will also continue to operate and rescue and rehabilitate animals in need, including whales and dolphins.

The authorization to save a stranded, sick or injured marine animal is provided by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) in advance of any rescue effort by the aquarium. Rescued animals are then transferred to the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre – located outside Stanley Park – for critical, short-term care, with the aim to rehabilitate and release back to the wild.

The aquarium confirms that should a rescued cetacean need ongoing care, the animal care team will identify an appropriate long-term facility and work to arrange for a transfer of the patient. The aquarium also said that — when necessary — on a temporary basis, Vancouver Aquarium may need to house a rescued cetacean at its unique facility until an appropriate receiving facility has been identified.

“The Rescue Centre isn’t in Stanley Park,” said Nightingale. “The Rescue Centre will continue to operate unimpeded by whatever the Park Board did. The question is if you recuse a cetacean and in the judgment of veterinarians and fisheries and oceans, for whatever reason it cannot go back to the wild and that’s always our first goal, but if it can’t then it will be transferred to some other facility, most likely not in Canada. It will go somewhere else.”

With files from reporter Jeremy Lye

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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