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Vancouver park board report avoids taking a stand on captive whales

Qila, a beluga at the Vancouver Aquarium, is prepared for an ultrasound in April, 2014. The park board has called for more research on keeping them in captivity.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The Vancouver park board has released the report it commissioned on keeping beluga whales and dolphins at the city aquarium, but it does not take a stand on whether cetaceans should be held in captivity and effectively calls for more research.

The report was released on Wednesday, ahead of Saturday's special park board meeting. The captivity debate resurfaced in April, with some park board commissioners and later the mayor voicing opposition to keeping cetaceans at the aquarium.

Joseph Gaydos – chief scientist of the Wildlife Health Center's SeaDoc Society Program at the University of California, Davis – was tasked with conducting the review. His report says he was able to compile considerable data in the allotted time, but that more work is needed.

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"The Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation should recognize that a large-scale scientific study on the welfare of captive housed cetaceans would be an ideal next step for evaluating the ethics of housing captive cetaceans," he wrote.

The park board's chair has said he wants a decision on keeping cetaceans at the aquarium to be made before the November civic election.

Dr. Gaydos wrote that the Vancouver aquarium provides "exceptional care" for cetaceans, and reinforced the facility's oft-stated point that its research and rescue efforts could be harmed if it could not have the marine mammals.

"If the Vancouver aquarium were to no longer house cetaceans they would have the option to continue both their research program and their stranding and response program, but the quality of those programs could be compromised. They would no longer be able to use captive cetaceans to learn information that could benefit the management and conservation of free-ranging cetaceans," he wrote.

Dr. Gaydos added that keeping cetaceans in captivity is "becoming an issue of heightened public interest." He said the Vancouver aquarium is meeting North American standards, but those standards are not necessarily the best thing for the marine mammals.

An aquarium spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail that the facility would respond to the report at Saturday's meeting.

Sarah Blyth, a park board commissioner who has opposed cetaceans at the aquarium, said in an interview that she looks forward to hearing from residents on Saturday.

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Ms. Blyth – who has said she was moved by the documentary Blackfish, which focuses on orcas at SeaWorld – said more than 60 speakers have signed up.

When asked if the process is moving too fast, given Dr. Gaydos' view that more research is needed, Ms. Blyth said no. She said more research can always be done, but a great deal of scientific material already exists.

Dr. Gaydos wrote that seven countries, one county, and one U.S. state ban importing and capturing live cetaceans and keeping them in captivity or using them for commercial purposes or exhibition.

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