Vancouver Aquarium's Case for Captive Whales Flounders
by Jeff Matthews - Pacific Free Press
December 6, 2016
Talk about a whale of a tale. At least, that seems to be what Vancouver Aquarium's headline-grabbing suggestion that activists poisoned its whales was designed to have you do.
Unable to pinpoint a specific cause for the deaths of their last two remaining belugas, the aquarium was left to speculate. And speculate they did, deftly pointing their finger at the critics of whale captivity that have been an ever-present thorn in their side. Then, perhaps just to make it all seem a little more real, they stated that police had been contacted in the matter.
It was a possibility, the aquarium was keen to emphasize, that they weren't ruling out.
Except, there was never any evidence for it.
There have been over 40 whales and dolphins die at the aquarium over the years, not one of them caused by a murderous gang of animal lovers. No suspicious characters on their surveillance video. No traces of a toxin in their pools or in their dead whales. No evidence whatsoever to indicate foul play, say Vancouver Police.
With zero evidence of beluga-cide and several far more likely explanations, it is hard not to see this make-believe beluga murder mystery as nothing more than PR sleight-of-hand -- a purposeful misdirection, designed to deflect responsibility for the deaths of whales in their care and discredit their most vocal opponents. To do so amid emotional pleas for time to grieve is cynical in the extreme. Ask yourself: Are these the actions one expects from a world-class science-based conservation charity? Or are they the public relations tactics more typical of people with something to hide?
After all, it is increasingly difficult to reconcile the aquarium's carefully crafted public image as world-leaders in whale and dolphin care with their mounting death toll. Aurora and Qila are but the latest of five deaths in just the past two years.Many of the 40+ whales that have died at Vancouver Aquarium reached only a fraction of the lifespan they are capable of in the wild. Captive-bred belugas - whales they say are 'ideally suited for captivity' - have fared the worst.
There have been five belugas born at the aquarium. Tuaq (the first captive-born beluga at the aquarium) died at age 6 months; Tuvaq, just before his third birthday; Tiqa a little past age 3; and Nala, barely a year. Qila was the only one to survive beyond age 3.
Is this what we get from world-class care?
Perhaps not. Compared to other marine parks, Vancouver Aquarium's record of young deaths of captive-born belugas is arguably worse than any other active facility in North America, including SeaWorld (see figure below). One has to wonder whether the five belugas the aquarium has said it intends to import from its partners like SeaWorld would be better off staying where they are.
One might also be tempted to ask, given that they have such a hard time keeping these animals alive in captivity, how this practice helps the survival of wild beluga populations. Conservation is after all, one of the primary justifications given for keeping and breeding whales at many facilities, including SeaWorld. There is little doubt that in 50 years, aquarium researchers have learned something new about belugas. It is often said, however, that research on whales in captivity mostly benefits whales in captivity.
Perhaps that is why, after five decades of research, results from the aquarium's captive research program have not saved, or even measurably improved the life of even a single wild beluga.Beluga populations from Hudson's Bay to the St. Lawrence are, today, in worse shape than when their research program began. What exactly makes the aquarium so confident that ten, twenty, thirty or even fifty more years will do the trick? History does not appear to be on their side.
Why then, the rush to spend $50 million dollars (much of it from taxpayers) on bigger tanks and import 5 new belugas to continue the same approach? Researching whales confined to tanks is by no means the only way to study them. In fact, many argue there are far better, more humane ways to learn about wild whales.
There are also easier ways to help save whales, if that's what you do.At this very moment, our beloved Southern resident killer whales - whales that often pass within metres of the aquarium's steps - are facing what may be their greatest existential threat ever. Scientists have warned that the approval of the Kinder Morgan pipeline will likely mean the extinction of this unique population of orcas. If ever there were an emergency for a legitimate Vancouver-based marine conservation organization - especially one focused on whales -- this would be it. But Vancouver Aquarium has remained silent on the issue. They have no official position on the pipeline, nor on its grave consequences for our orcas.
Why in the world would Vancouver Aquarium choose to sit by and silently accept the likely extinction of our entire local subpopulation of orcas? The same group of whales, incidentally, upon which they built their international reputation.I really can't say. Taking a cue from Vancouver Aquarium leadership, however, it seems I am allowed to speculate. Although this list is not comprehensive and I have no direct evidence to support any of them, I have not ruled out the following possible reasons:
- They are unwilling to speak out against an oil and gas industry that has helped fill their coffers for so many years.
- They view the increased oil tanker traffic accompanying the pipeline as an opportunity to resume killer whale shows in Stanley Park (oil tankers + orcas = collisions = injured orcas = 'rescue' opportunities = orcas that can be taught tricks for food in Stanley Park)
What activists have been saying for years is true - science and conservation are secondary to selling tickets to whale shows.You are free to come to your own conclusions, of course. Or, better still, ask them yourself.
Jeff Matthews is a scientist and environmental activist based in Vancouver who has a passion for ocean and animal rights issues. He obtained a PhD in biophysics from the University of British Columbia.