City on hook for $50 million Vancouver Aquarium expansion cost if cetacean ban approved

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If Vancouver Park Board commissioners force the Vancouver Aquarium to phase out dolphins and whales from its facility, City of Vancouver taxpayers will be responsible for reimbursing millions of dollars spent to date on expanding the marine science centre at Stanley Park.

That was the stern warning Dr. John Nightingale, CEO and President of the Vancouver Aquarium, gave to the Vision Vancouver dominated Park Board commissioners yesterday as part of a presentation during a special public meeting on the Aquarium’s future.

“As a non-profit conservation organization, the Vancouver Aquarium has already invested tens of thousands of dollars and over a thousand hours to help inform the Park Board’s review. We hope for a timely decision on their part so we may return our focus to much needed conservation work,” Dr. Nightingale told Vancity Buzz.

“If the Park Board chooses to ban cetaceans, the Aquarium will be looking for compensation for some of the $50 million already invested in our expansion to provide even better homes for our whales and dolphins.”

Aquarium’s fate still not known

The meeting began with the review of an independent report created by scientists and veterinarians at the University of California which concluded the research, rescue and conservation programs undertaken by the Vancouver Aquarium depend on its whales and dolphins. Every year, it rescues, rehabilitates and releases approximately 100 marine mammals back into the wild.

For nearly two decades, the Vancouver Aquarium has committed to a strict policy of not capturing whales and dolphins from the wild. It only obtains cetaceans from other facilities if they were born in captivity, captured or were rescued and deemed unfit for release by the federal government.

A decision on the Aquarium’s future will be made after the Park Board hears from the public. Over 133 speakers, including many animal rights activists, signed up to have their voices heard. However, there was only enough time for a handful of individuals on the speakers’ list to give their allotted 3 minutes to express their opinion.

Saturday’s meeting began at 9 a.m. and ended at 5 p.m. The Park Board commissioners will reconvene on Monday to continue with the speakers’ list, but an additional third meeting later in the week will likely be needed to reach the last speaker.

Park Board’s Aquarium flip-flop

Nightingale’s warning of municipal taxpayers picking up the multi-million dollar expansion cost targets the very issue of the lack in continuity with the Park Board’s policy making process.

About eight years ago, Park Board commissioners approved the Vancouver Aquarium’s expansion plans after a highly scrutinized public process that examined the intricate details of the expansion.

A public consultation process prior to the November 2006 vote also revealed 89 per cent of local residents were in favour of the expansion plan based on the full knowledge that it would include expanded indoor facilities and amenities as well as new and larger outdoor pools.

The Park Board’s approval gave the Aquarium the required green light to begin fundraising for the remaining capital needed to commence its $120 million expansion.

In April 2011, the Vancouver Aquarium decided to downsize its expansion plans to a $100 million budget, and this expansion was subsequently approved again by Vancouver Park Board commissioners in a second vote.

In anticipation of the construction to come, the majority of the Vancouver Aquarium’s dolphins and beluga whales were temporarily relocated to other North American facilities. Most of these existing mammals will likely return to the Vancouver Aquarium upon the completion of the second phase of the expansion project, although animal rights activists have erroneously claimed otherwise, saying these will be “new” dolphin and whale additions to the Vancouver Aquarium.

The second phase consists of two new larger outdoor pools for the beluga whales and is scheduled to be finished in 2017.

The institution is at odds over the Park Board’s lack of continuity as the issue of keeping cetaceans is not up for review until 2015 as previously agreed upon between the City and the Aquarium.

“Our hope is that the Park Board thoughtfully considers the science needs of having beluga whales at Vancouver’s marine science centre, as illustrated by the independent report, and they come to support the valuable cetacean research program we lead for Canada,” adds Dr. Nightingale.

The highly publicized animal activist-led movement to remove dolphins and whales from the Vancouver Aquarium gained traction within the Park Board in March 2014. At least two Park Board commissioners, Constance Barnes and Sarah Blyth, have openly stated their support for such a decision.

 

Featured Image: Vancouver Aquarium

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