Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre is a conservation organization that Canadians look to for science and facts on important issues. Every now and then we feel the need to clarify inaccurate messages being shared about our conservation efforts and this is one of those times.
Some of you may have seen a local video created and circulated by an anti-conservation detractor. This video is not a documentary, as it’s not grounded in truth. Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre invests millions of dollars each year on its conservation, research, rescue and education programs. Egregious claims that state otherwise in a video made by detractors are clearly untrue.
When the producer approached us last year, we invited him to visit the Aquarium, to speak to our team and to learn about our many conservation and research efforts. Our mission is to conserve aquatic life and we do that by raising awareness, connecting visitors to nature and encouraging people to take action. He decided not to use the facts we provided and, instead, has deliberately created an inaccurate movie that misleads the viewer. We want to correct several points where he has manipulated the truth.
Beluga Whales Receive Exceptional Care
The small group of animals in professional care receive daily veterinary care, enrichment activities, healthy diets and routine check-ups – these animals are well cared for and are not the ones in trouble. Animals that are under grave threat are the depleting numbers of wild cetaceans that are being directly impacted by human activities every day, such as overfishing, dumping of contaminants, more and more plastics and increasing noise associated with shipping. As humans continue to damage our natural world, institutions like Vancouver Aquarium are the ones conducting research to save wild species, activating community groups in conservation programs to protect our oceans and encouraging conservation practices to slow down the degradation of nature.
No Wild Capture Commitment
In 1996, Vancouver Aquarium became the first aquarium in the world to commit to no longer capturing cetaceans (whales and dolphins) from the wild. We made that commitment believing we could sustain our cetacean population — and the critical research and rescue work we do — through collaboration, with the addition of calves born to our accredited collaborating institutions, and by providing a home to rescued animals. None of the beluga whales at the Vancouver aquarium, or currently living in other facilities, can live in the wild.
Vancouver Aquarium was not included in the Georgia Aquarium permit application to import wild belugas from Russia. The addendum references a meeting that took place in August 2012 where Vancouver Aquarium was invited to hear about the plans to import the belugas so that it would be fully informed. At the meeting, Vancouver Aquarium made it very clear that, due to its commitment to no wild cetacean capture, it would not be participating in any aspect of the import of belugas nor providing resources to assist in the placement of animals. It is also noted on the permit that none of those beluga whales would be brought to Canada.
Canada’s Only Marine Mammal Rescue Centre
Vancouver Aquarium founded and manages the only Marine Mammal Rescue Centre in Canada with a skilled team able to rescue stranded marine mammals including whales and dolphins. This is entirely due to our direct experience in providing daily care to cetaceans at Vancouver Aquarium. The Aquarium has been saving marine mammals along B.C.’s coast for over 50 years. Our Rescue Centre now rescues, rehabilitates and releases 100 or more marine animals a year. These are wild animals that are reported as stranded and/or severely injured and are rescued under government permits.
Rescued animals come to the Aquarium’s Rescue Centre to be treated, with the goal of successfully releasing them back into the wild. The rescue and eventual release of a rehabilitated animal is carefully regulated by government jurisdictions to protect wild populations from issues such as disease, and to protect rescued animals to ensure they are only released back into the wild when they are able to successfully survive on their own. Successful rescue and releases in the last decade include killer whales, a grey whale, harbor porpoise, sea lion, northern fur seals, northern elephant seals and thousands of harbour seals, among others.
The average annual cost of managing the Aquarium’s Rescue Centre is $350,000, which can increase significantly in any one year with the intake of a stranded cetacean. In 2014, when the false killer whale Chester was rescued and rehabilitated, the operating cost of the Rescue Centre increased to nearly $600,000 for around-the-clock care. The bulk of the required funds come from Aquarium operations with some funding from donations and partnership/sponsorships. The Aquarium’s Rescue Centre is located on a temporary site on the waterfront, a site that will eventually be developed, which will require the Rescue Centre to be moved. When a permanent home is determined, even more substantial fundraising will be required to enable construction of the new facilities.
The Aquarium is currently fundraising for its capital campaign to revitalize its infrastructure and expand its facility in Stanley Park. The first phase has been completed and it is entering its second phase of revitalization which includes the expansion of cetacean habitats. In total, Vancouver Aquarium has raised $55 million as part of its capital campaign to support its much-needed infrastructure revitalization.
Commitment to Conservation Programs
As a non-profit marine science centre, Vancouver Aquarium is committed to aquatic conservation. In the past 10 years, the Aquarium’s financial commitment to conservation, research and education has grown by 87 per cent.
During 2000 to 2010, Vancouver Aquarium housed a finite, 10-year “big ocean” research project, the Pacific Ocean Shelf Tracking Program. This program was one of 17 projects that made up the global Census of Marine Life. During this decade-long census more than 2,000 scientists from over 80 countries worked together to identify and describe as many animals as possible living in the world’s vast ocean.
The 10-year project was externally funded, with an annual budget of approximately $2 million and three full-time scientists who were housed at the Aquarium. Those external funds were accounted for within the Aquarium’s financials during this 10-year period, which resulted in inflated Aquarium revenues between 2000 and 2010. When the Census came to an end, the funding source for the program also ended, which is also reflected in the Aquarium’s 2013 financials.
Professional industry associations, including esteemed organizations like the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Chartered Professional Accountants and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, are self-regulating bodies comprising members who adhere to strict ethical principles, rules of conduct and professional guidelines. Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre is a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums and the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums. Each of these organizations operates a rigorous, inspection-based, organizational and facility accreditation program. The Aquarium is accredited by all three.
Mating is a natural behaviour that occurs between healthy animals. We collaborate with accredited peer facilities to manage the genetic diversity of beluga whales in professional care. Under a cooperative philosophy, each facility manages its own animals and each provides exceptional care. Animals are sometimes moved between facilities to ensure appropriate genetic diversity, to manage population levels and for other reasons such as managing the impacts of construction. No money is exchanged as part of these loans or transfers.
Studies of cetacean reproduction and calf development have provided important scientific advances that have assisted captive and rescued animals, and prepares biologists and other scientists as they work to protect endangered populations. Raising calves in aquariums also provides the scientific knowledge and practical hands-on skills to rescue stranded cetaceans, like Levi, the harbour porpoise who was rehabilitated and released in 2013, and Chester, the false killer whale currently in our care.
Professionally and appropriately managed, the small number of well cared for and content belugas living at Vancouver Aquarium and other accredited facilities provide a unique and important opportunity to contribute to our greater understanding of these magnificent animals, and to the protection of their wild counterparts.
In 1995, Aurora gave birth to Qila at the Vancouver Aquarium. She was the first beluga to be conceived and born in a Canadian aquarium, and one of the first worldwide. It was a significant milestone in the study of beluga reproductive biology. Over the past 39 years, four beluga calves have passed away at the Aquarium and each due to unrelated and unpreventable causes. In the wild, beluga calves are weaned in their second year of life and female belugas become sexually mature at approximately five years of age.
Vancouver Aquarium is a leader in cetacean research only because it is able to care for cetaceans at its marine science centre. Pioneering research led by scientists, such as Dr. Valeria Vergara’s ongoing study of beluga acoustic communications, applies knowledge garnered during on-site studies at the Aquarium. Studying some behavioural aspects of beluga whales in the wild is often extremely difficult, if not impossible. Dr. Vergara now applies that same research to wild beluga whales in Canada’s Arctic and the St. Lawrence Estuary.
Belugas in our care have contributed to the training of field researchers, assisted in the development of mark and recapture bands to help estimate the population size of wild belugas, and provided baseline data for both vocalization research and healthy lung function to help future rescues of stranded whales. Vancouver Aquarium’s veterinarians, scientists, trainers and professional staff have decades of experience in cetacean care, research and rescue efforts. Learn more about cetacean research and read some of its publications.
Pacific White-sided Dolphins
In 2005, Pacific white-sided dolphins, Helen and Hana, arrived in Vancouver after they were rescued and rehabilitated in Japan. Both were rescued as a badly injured animals from fixed fishing nets off the East coast of Japan and deemed non-releasable by the Japanese government. They did not come from the Japanese drive fisheries. Vancouver Aquarium does not support, fund or acquire animals from drive fisheries. In fact, Vancouver Aquarium, like all accredited aquariums in North America, condemns the inhumane killing of dolphins and other cetaceans in the Japanese drive fisheries. Further, all members of the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums have also committed to not taking animals captured as part of the drive fishery.
Beluga Whales as an Engagement Point
Beluga whales at Vancouver Aquarium play a critical role in conservation research and help us explain the impacts of climate change to more than one million visitors a year. As part of its rich 60-year history as Canada’s marine science centre, Vancouver Aquarium has connected over 40 million visitors to the critical issues facing the oceans and its inhabitants through a visit that is often the first exposure visitors have to majestic marine mammals, such as beluga whales. The emotional connection people experience through a visit at the Aquarium serves as an important point of engagement, which is a critical step in fostering the interest needed for visitors to care and take action to protect our imperiled oceans.
As a registered not-for-profit organization, Vancouver Aquarium publicly shares its conservation efforts in our 2014 Annual Report. You may also watch our Cetaceans in Our Care video. On behalf of our 1,500+ staff and volunteers, we would like thank the many supporters who believe in the conservation work we lead. We look forward to sharing our continued conservation efforts with you.