Open Letter: Cetaceans in Vancouver Aquarium's Care

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A small, but vocal, group has been aggressively targeting the Vancouver Aquarium by spreading misinformation on its policies for cetaceans – for whales and dolphins.

The Aquarium no longer captures wild cetaceans for display and has responded back by stating that they have been open and transparent about their position as a non-profit conservation organization.

Here is the open letter from the Vancouver Aquarium:

We would like to take this opportunity to provide facts in the light of the continued circulation of inaccurate messages that have been shared by some who may be misinformed about our animals and our conservation efforts.

Vancouver Aquarium is a non-profit society—proceeds directly support our conservation, research and education programs. Our team of 1,500 staff and volunteers provide exceptional care to our animals and are deeply committed to ocean conservation. One of the most impactful ways we do this is by raising awareness and through public engagement.

We are a leader in managing our cetacean populations, which includes our belugas and Pacific white-sided dolphins. On September 16, 1996, Vancouver Aquarium took a leadership role and became the first (and only) aquarium in the world to make a commitment to no longer capture cetaceans (whales and dolphins) from the wild for display and to only care for:

  • Cetaceans that were captured before 1996
  • Cetaceans that were already being kept in a zoo or aquarium before 1996
  • Cetaceans that were born in a zoo or aquarium
  • Cetaceans that were rescued from the wild and rehabilitated, but deemed non-releasable by the appropriate government authorities

We do not and will not capture wild cetaceans for display. The last dolphin collected for the Aquarium was in 1971 and the last cetacean of any kind was collected in 1990 when our beluga whale, Aurora, joined us. Our responsible breeding program, managed in partnership with accredited institutions in North America, enables us to maintain a population of marine mammals at the Aquarium that continues to contribute to vital public engagement and interpretation. And, we serve as a long-term home for rescued cetaceans that cannot be returned to the wild due to their injuries or inability to survive on their own.

Unfortunately, there has been and continues to be a great deal of misinformation being circulated, often deliberately, about where our Pacific white-sided dolphins came from.

Our Pacific white-sided dolphins did not come from Japanese drive fisheries or from Taiji. In fact there is not a single dolphin from the drive fisheries in any accredited aquarium in North America. Institutions accredited by Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums, The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (US) or the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums (International) all condemn that practice. To claim otherwise is deliberately misleading and dishonest.

Our Pacific white-sided dolphins Helen and Hana were rescued as badly injured animals from fixed (non-moving) fishing nets on the opposite coast of Japan (East Coast). As rescued animals, they were deemed non-releasable (could not be returned to nature) by the Japanese Government. Those same dolphins are now being provided with a safe and healthy, long-term home at the Aquarium and are helping Aquarium researchers understand how dolphins perceive nets—a study we hope will lead to the development of dolphin safe nets, ultimately protecting other wild dolphins from a similar fate.

The Vancouver Aquarium will continue, where possible, to provide long-term homes for rescued cetaceans deemed non-releasable by government. The ultimate goal of our marine mammal rescue program is for a healthy release back to the wild. Last year we saw the successful rescue, rehabilitation and reintroduction of the harbor porpoiseLevi. We believe, however, that the number of non-releasable cetaceans that will require long-term homes is likely to increase over the coming years—this is a long term commitment on our part to do what we can for local species and individuals in critical need. We are the only facility capable of this in the whole of Canada and one of a handful in North America.

Our beluga whales and dolphins participate in ongoing research to help us better understand wild populations and contribute to their conservation. The skills our staff developed through working with belugas at Vancouver Aquarium have directly contributed to wild beluga research including behavioral studies taking place this summer.

We have decades of baseline medical data, including exposure to disease, on our cetaceans which is used as a comparative for animal health in wild populations. This is extremely important right now with the changing climate in the Arctic and the potential exposure of wild animals to novel diseases.

Aquariums perform a vital role in educating people about aquatic conservation and contribute to critical research to conserve aquatic life. Seeing animals in aquariums has helped change public perception and increased support for conserving wild populations. There is no real substitute for connecting with our oceans and animals first-hand to generate a feeling of interest and engagement that leads to positive behavioral changes—changes that will ensure the continued health of our oceans.

We know from our visitors that, while videos and other interpretive materials help amplify or explain, as humans, our interest in ocean health most often starts with the animals themselves. Helping to establish this connection is increasingly important as more and more Canadians live in communities where we have less and less personal experience with nature.

With regard to our expansion, we have been planning our current revitalization for over 10 years. The Vancouver Aquarium proposed a revitalization and expansion to its facilities in Stanley Park to improve the animal habitats and public spaces and, in 2006, we conducted a public consultation—which exceeded municipal guidelines—to seek community input on the desirability of the proposal. The proposal received strong public support and, following a thorough public hearing process with the Vancouver Parks Board, it was approved. Some of our belugas were moved out ahead of the construction on loan to other accredited facilities in North America. The expansion will provide even larger habitats for our animals and revitalize some older systems in much-needed repair. The first phase of this revitalization is scheduled to open this summer.

We have been sharing our story for 57 years by connecting the million-plus visitors who come through our doors each year to our natural world. We’re currently connecting visitors to our conservation, research and education efforts through our VA Up Close feature that provides an intimate look at the amazing care our animals receive and their role in protecting their wild counterparts.

We hope this provides a better understanding of the important conservation work we lead at the Aquarium and that you will join us in our mission-focused efforts to protect our oceans and the aquatic life that depend on them.

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