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Second beluga death at Vancouver Aquarium prompts talk about whales in captivity

Aurora, a Beluga whale, swims with her newborn calf after giving birth at the Vancouver Aquarium in June, 2009.

ANDY CLARK/REUTERS

Parks Board officials say the death of a beluga whale at the Vancouver Aquarium – the second in less than two weeks – is a turning point that justifies a vote by city residents on whether whales should be kept at the facility.

Sarah Kirby-Yung, the chair of the Vancouver Park Board, said in an interview that she will introduce a motion at a board meeting on Monday to have a plebiscite in the 2018 municipal election on the issue. The beluga whale Aurora, who had lived at the aquarium since 1990, died on Friday.

Ms. Kirby-Yung is proposing to have a question placed on the municipal ballot.

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"It's a good idea because the time has come to have an authentic conversation around this," said Ms. Kirby-Yung, who formerly worked at the aquarium as vice-president of marketing and communications.

Although Ms. Kirby-Yung, one of four Non-Partisan Association party members on the board, plans to table the motion Monday night, there would be no debate until the next meeting.

She said that, based on what she's hearing in the community, even supporters of the aquarium are questioning whether whales should be kept in the facility, located in Stanley Park. "Rather than continuing on as we have, it's an important time to take stock," she said.

On Friday, 30-year-old Aurora died after more than a week of illness that included symptoms of abdominal cramping, lethargy and a loss of appetite. Her death came nine days after her calf Qila – the first whale born in captivity in Canada – died at the age of 21.

Aurora's death leaves the aquarium without a beluga whale. Five other belugas from the Vancouver Aquarium are living temporarily at various locations across the United States as expansion plans proceed for the facility, including an expansion of the surface of the beluga tank.

The deaths have fired up new criticism of keeping whales at the 60-year-old institution with animal-rights groups calling for bans on holding cetaceans in captivity or capturing whales.

Parks Board members from other parties were supportive of the idea of including the issue on the next municipal ballot.

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Stuart Mackinnon, one of two Green Party members, said he would like to see a plebiscite. "I want to hear what the people of Vancouver have to say," he said, adding he would also like a review of the municipal bylaw that allows cetaceans in the aquarium.

Catherine Evans, the sole Vision Vancouver member of the board, also said she would support a vote timed with the election, but called for the aquarium to hold off on its expansion plans pending the outcome of a plebiscite.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson was unavailable for comment on the issue on Sunday.

The aquarium declined comment Sunday, pending a news conference on Monday featuring management and veterinary staff.

A spokesperson for the facility referred to remarks over the weekend by Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard at a B.C. Marine Mammal Symposium in Vancouver over the weekend.

He said he was mindful of many questions about what caused the two deaths, but could not speculate on causes. "Not only do I not have any information, but it's still an open question," he said in the video of remarks flagged by the spokesperson.

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Dr. Barrett-Lennard said possibilities for the cause of death range from pathogens to a toxin, and that staff are "pulling out the stops" to figure out what happened.

He noted that this is the first time in 49 years that there has not been a beluga in Vancouver.

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About the Author
B.C. reporter

Ian Bailey is a Vancouver-based reporter for The Globe and Mail.  He covers politics and general news. Prior to arriving at The Globe and Mail, he reported from Toronto and St. John’s for The Canadian Press.  He has also covered British Columbia for CP, The National Post and The Province. More

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