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Vancouver park board upholds cetacean ban and ends performance

Park board received 12,866 messages supporting aquarium and 14,695 supporting ban
Vancouver Aquarium Tuesday said it is disappointed with the park board’s move to appeal the Supreme Court ruling striking down the bylaw banning cetaceans.


The CEO of the Vancouver Aquarium vowed he and his supporters would “not give up” in the face of a decision at the park board May 15 to not only uphold a ban against the importation of new cetaceans to city parks but also strengthen that ban by prohibiting performances.

John Nightingale did not immediately rule out legal action and said such restrictions could mean job losses and restructuring at the aquarium, which hosted a record 1.2 million visitors last year and planned to phase out some cetacean displays on its own timeline by 2029.

“I know you will stand with me and not give up, so we will continue to oppose what the park board has just done in various ways,” Nightingale told supporters following the vote.

The park board received thousands of correspondence on the topic following a plea by the aquarium that their fans speak up. While 12,866 messages supported the aquarium, more were opposed to cetaceans in captivity. Park board reported they received 14,695 messages supporting the ban.

The three cetaceans currently at the aquarium, a Pacific white-sided dolphin, harbour porpoise and a false killer whale, will be allowed to stay in the Stanley Park tourist attraction but cannot perform for public entertainment.

The ban took effect immediately. The decision was supported 6-1 with Erin Shum opposing the amendment to a previous unanimous decision taken March 9.

The crowd, an unprecedented display at the park board office, chanted “Thank you, Erin,” even as it became clear the independent commissioner would be the only dissenting vote. Protesters shouted, “Do the right thing,” “Every animal matters,” and, “Whales need help,” and did not let up for three hours. The topic was finally brought forward at 8:47 p.m. after the park board ran through its regular course of business.

Signs were clever and heartfelt but perhaps not on topic or accurate: “Aquarium rescues. Park board euthanizes,” was one, along with, “Don’t be shellfish,” and, in reference to a recent sea lion rescue, “It’s not natural selection when you’re shot in the face.”

Discussion was brief and the majority of commissioners held fast as they sat around the board room table as if in a fishbowl of their own.  Roughly 300 protesters, the vast majority of them supporting the aquarium, pushed onto the lawns around the park board office, carrying signs and chanting for three hours. Their stamina was as ceaseless as the rain.

At one point, protesters cried, “Hear our voices! Hear our voices!” While certainly heard, they were not heeded.

“The time for display of all cetaceans in Vancouver parks has come to an end,” said NPA commissioner Casey Crawford. “It’s an unusual assertion that park board commissioners may not have jurisdiction here, but we have. We have clear and unequivocal jurisdiction over Vancouver parks.”

Although the rescue and rehabilitation of wild marine mammals was not curtailed by the park board, the ability to treat injured cetaceans will become more fraught for the aquarium since none can be housed in Stanley Park in the event the animal cannot return to the wild. The Marine Mammal Rescue Centre is located in the port, not on park land. 

The ban does not apply to any animal other than cetaceans, written in the bylaw as baleen whales, narwhals, dolphins, porpoises, killer whales and beluga whales. 

“I hope all marine mammals stay safe swimming around in the ocean for a while while this gets sorted out,” said Nightingale. “All I can say is if we let this stop here, we give up on the animal that need help the most.”

The tone and information of much public discourse did not represent the facts of the ban or the discussion, said several commissioners.

Indeed, such “fear-mongering,” as Visions’ Catherine Evans labelled it, as well as the moral imperative of their decision, appeared to unify what is otherwise a politically diverse and outspoken board.

“It is a lie to say the park board does not support the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre,” said Stuart Mackinnon, a Green commissioner who has stood against cetacean captivity for decades and tabled such a motion in his first term more than five years ago. “It is a lie to say this board favour euthanasia for large animals. It has done a disservice to the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, to the aquarium and to this board to suggest otherwise."

Evans said the decision was informed by science but guided by ethics.

“It’s not only can you do this, but should you do this,” she said. “I would say that we have been through a very thorough process, not only in the last couple of months but also through several rounds, decades even, of conversation about cetaceans in captivity. Standards change and so does our understanding about the ethical treatment of animals,” she said.

The NPA’s Sarah Kirby-Yung, a former communications staffer with the aquarium who brought this topic to the board in the fall following the death of two beluga whales, said she would have welcomed a more “thoughtful debate” about global rescue and rehabilitation practices.

“I am dismayed the focus has been on non-constructive and often inaccurate rhetoric to whip up the public into a frenzy, which is what I think we are seeing here tonight,” she said, noting it may have been “politically expedient” for members of some municipal parties to support the aquarium.

“We stood up and we stood for something. At the end of the day, this is not a political decision but this is the right decision,” she said.

As the one dissenting vote, Shum pushed the general manager to make public some of the in-camera legal counsel the board had received. She feared the financial and legal repercussions of a ban were too great to bear.

“I supported this amendment on the basis it would provide long-term information to satisfy those and other questions and concerns, but as I sit here today, I am not convinced. The park board has not been presented with sufficient information to understand or mitigate those concerns for the long term. I remain concerned about the safety, operational and transitional impact for the majestic marine animals currently housed in the aquarium,” she said.