Belugas and other whales may be gone from the Vancouver Aquarium, but environmental groups say the facility is still profiting from cetaceans in captivity.
Protesters from Empty the Tanks gathered outside the aquarium Saturday to blast the organization for shipping two belugas it owns from Ontario’s Marineland to a public park in Spain, L’Oceanografic, which is operated by Vancouver Aquarium and its parent company Ocean Wise.
The transport was confirmed by Fisheries and Oceans Canada on May 3, ahead of a new federal law expected to pass the House of Commons this month that would ban exports of marine mammals.
“They’ve taken a partial position where they say they may stop keeping cetaceans in captivity, but they still work behind the scenes to undermine federal laws,” organizer David Isbister said.
“We’re here to remind them to follow those bans.”
WATCH: (Aired Jan. 18, 2018) Vancouver Aquarium announces it will no longer display whales or dolphins
Bill S-203 would ban keeping whales and dolphins in captivity across Canada, along with imports and exports of the mammals.
Exceptions exist only for scientific research or “if it is in the best interest” of the animal, with discretion left up to the ministry, thereby clamping down on the marine mammal trade.
It will also change the Criminal Code, creating new animal cruelty offences related to the captivity of cetaceans. It also bans breeding.
Fellow protest organizer Jeff Matthews said transferring marine mammals can be horrific.
“They’re still involved in the whale and dolphin trade, shipping whales off to Spain.”
The protests in Vancouver were part of a worldwide day of demonstrations outside other marine parks, including L’Oceanografic.
Last week, both the Vancouver Aquarium and Marineland said the movement of the belugas had nothing to do with the looming legislation.
“The decision to move them was made in their best interest, not because of politics,” the Vancouver Aquarium said in a statement.
“These two aquarium-born belugas will receive exceptional care at L’Oceanografic, where they will join a small social grouping of whales already in care there.”
The aquarium added the transfer would not cost the Spanish park any money.
On Saturday, the aquarium said it would also not be making any money from the whales themselves once they’re at L’Oceanografic.
WATCH: (Aired Jan. 19, 2018) Vancouver Aquarium plans for future without whales or dolphins
“The management and care of animals in any aquarium or zoo are the responsibility of that facility, so no, the Vancouver Aquarium is not making money from beluga whales that will be moving to Spain,” the aquarium said in a statement.
When asked whether the aquarium profits from its partnership with the management company that operates the park, Vancouver Aquarium said “eventually” there would be “some income” for Ocean Wise, but couldn’t say definitively.
The Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation passed a bylaw amendment in 2017 banning cetaceans being brought to or kept in city parks after two beluga whales held at the aquarium died.
The aquarium announced last year that it would phase out whale and dolphin display, despite the B.C. Supreme Court ruling it was exempt from the park board’s amendment due to an existing contract.
There are currently no whales on display, although one dolphin remains. A false killer whale, Chester, died in 2017.
At that time, many advocates suggested a controlled “sea pen” facility could be set up off the coast of B.C. that would allow the public to view whales and dolphins in their natural habitat.
Matthews says that’s still the best solution.
“It would give them enough room to move around and indulge their natural instincts, which they can’t do in a concrete pool,” he said.
Matthews said the U.S.-based Whale Sanctuary Project has been looking to set up such a facility, and is eyeing locations in B.C. and along Canada’s Atlantic coast.
He believes the Vancouver Aquarium has not responded to requests to participate in the project.
The aquarium has said a sea pen facility would pose several problems, including the inability to control the animals’ habitat and a lack of human contact, which veterinarians say animals bred in captivity need.
— With files from the Canadian Press