“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” — John Muir.

A warming planet is a hostile place for a species best suited to cold and ice. In the Arctic, the beluga whale’s environment is melting, and in the St. Lawrence Estuary, human pressures have caused the whale population to dwindle to less than 900 individuals, from an estimated 10,000 prior to 1885.

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Human activity interferes with acoustic communication between beluga mothers and calves.

For 50 years the Vancouver Aquarium has worked to protect beluga whales in the wild, by introducing the species to Canadians who might never have otherwise heard of it, and with research and understanding gained with animals here on site and in the field. The work we’re doing with this vulnerable species is critical, and as a marine science centre with conservation as our mission, we believe we have an obligation to continue it.

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This research may bring us one step closer to answering questions that will help protect belugas.

Today, the Aquarium announced a new 12-year beluga conservation program centred on a small group of non-breeding beluga whales that will be brought back to Vancouver from other institutions to participate in an expanded Marine Mammal Research Program. By the end of 2029, the Aquarium intends to discontinue its display of beluga whales, and this proactive and important on-site conservation research program will come to an end at Vancouver Aquarium.

Scientists have proven that up-close encounters with live animals change perceptions, increase understanding and inspire action.*

* Briseno-Garzon, A. et al (2007). Adult Learning Experiences from an Aquarium visit: The Role of Social Interactions in Family Groups. Skibins, J.C. & Powell, R.B. (2013). Conservation Caring: Measuring the Influence of Zoo Visitors’ Connection to Wildlife on Pro-Conservation Behaviors.

 

The Critical Importance of Education and Research

With just 30 animals left in the northern Gulf of California, the vaquita porpoise is believed to be the most endangered cetacean on earth. Most people have never heard of it. An ambitious emergency plan to try and save it from extinction includes research done at the Vancouver Aquarium.

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Porpoise research  at Vancouver Aquarium is contributing to rescue efforts for the vaquita.

The beluga conservation program is aimed at preventing a similar fate for Canada’s white whales. The program will include a research-first protocol, giving visitors a first-hand look at studies taking place with animals at the Aquarium, as well as in education and public outreach. The work on site will help inform current conservation work taking place with wild beluga populations in the Arctic and St. Lawrence Estuary.

A New Course for Beluga Conservation

Over the past three months, Vancouver Aquarium has conducted a thorough assessment and review of its Canada’s Arctic exhibit and marine mammal research program, which includes beluga whale studies. While the ongoing investigation of the beluga deaths in late 2016 will continue for several more months, the Aquarium has set a new course for the future for its beluga conservation program.

The program will include an expanded investment in the Marine Mammal Research Program, to study cetaceans such as beluga whales in a controlled marine science environment, and a significantly expanded beluga habitat to accommodate the unique lifestyle of belugas and the needs of researchers who will be studying these animals up close.

Photo: Sylvie Gilman

The Aquarium has already started to expand its collaboration with scientific partners, such as the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals (GREMM), UBC, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada to better understand the rapid decline of the endangered St. Lawrence beluga population. When this unique, proactive and important beluga conservation program phases out in December 2029, the Aquarium will instead focus its beluga conservation efforts further afield with the intention of applying its scientific knowledge to saving this iconic Canadian species.

Support for Marine Mammal Rescue

The expanded habitat will also support Vancouver Aquarium’s role as the only Marine Mammal Rescue Centre facility in Canada, which includes a team of first responders whose role is to take on emergency rescues for stranded, sick or injured marine mammals along Canada’s coastlines. For more than 50 years, Vancouver Aquarium’s rescue team has developed hands-on experience treating and caring for ailing whales and dolphins. The care of cetaceans on-site provides the rescue team with ongoing access to animals, enabling the team to continue developing advanced medical care training needed to perform emergency rescues.

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Marine Mammal Rescue Team hard at work saving a stranded false killer whale

Our 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 and non-releasable animals. We have honoured and remain wholly committed to that position. None of the beluga whales at the Vancouver Aquarium, or currently living in other facilities, can live in the wild.

One of the most important things we do, and the way we will have the biggest impact on conservation, is to serve as a window into Canada’s Arctic, the ecosystems, species and issues. Vancouver Aquarium visitors, both in person and via our digital platforms, will engage more with the impacts of a changing climate, human activities, and how each of us can help lessen the pressure on nature. This key part of our mission – expanding our engagement with Canadians and global citizens – is anchored in our new expanded exhibit.

“What is happening now in the Arctic provides a glimpse of our future; it is a harbinger of more devastating impacts to be seen at lower latitudes.” – Dr. Michael E. Mann, Climatologist and author of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines

We hope you’ll join us in protecting Canada’s Arctic, our beluga conservation program and Canada’s only Marine Mammal Rescue Centre. Share your thoughts with our elected officials here.

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4 Responses

  1. Diana Barrigar

    I think the Vancouver Aquarium’s role in beluga research and conservation is crucial and should be highly valued by Canadians. I am curious, however, why the Aquarium is investing so much time and money into a new beluga habitat, only to discontinue it 10 years later? That doesn’t make sense to me, and as a member/supporter, I’d like more information regarding this decision to end in 2029.
    Thank you.

    Reply
    • Vancouver Aquarium

      Hi Diana, thank you for your support and for asking questions about our beluga conservation program. We feel that having the opportunity to study beluga whales for another 10 years gives us a decade to continue critical beluga research so we may complete the studies we’ve started. Our focus in 2029 and beyond will be to transfer that knowledge and apply it to wild beluga research, much like how we are now applying our killer whale knowledge to studying wild killer whales.

      Reply
  2. Lori

    So you are bringing belugas back to the aquarium and then phasing them out in 2029, so what happens to the belugas that are there in 2029? Are you planning to set them free after many years in captivity, ship them off to another aquarium? Why even have them at the aquarium? Studying animals in captivity doesn’t tell you about their behavior in the wild! All seems pretty stupid to me!

    Reply
    • Vancouver Aquarium

      Lori, thanks for reaching out and asking questions about our beluga conservation program. The beluga whales in our care are non-releasable animals, which means that they would not be able to survive in the wild on their own. This program will allow us to continue studying belugas in a controlled setting and to conduct important research that cannot be done only in the wild. We intend to apply the scientific knowledge acquired through our beluga research to saving this iconic Canadian species.

      Reply

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