Last Thursday (9 March), the Vancouver Park Board Commissioners voted unanimously to amend the current bylaw that allows cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) to be displayed at the Vancouver Aquarium. In response to this decision Laurenne Schiller, Vancouver Aquarium scientist and PhD student, wrote this letter to the Park Board.
I work as a research analyst for Ocean Wise yet I could not attend the meeting in person last week since I am currently living in Halifax and working on a PhD in fisheries management. It’s all right though, because there is nothing my colleagues said that I could have said better. They are the experts on marine mammal care, I just study tuna. Actually, that’s not totally true: I study people. Because fisheries management has almost nothing to do with fish. Rather, it’s about the power struggle between different nations and fishing fleets, and how they contort policies and overlook scientific facts to meet their unique political agendas. So, as painful as it was to listen to your decision last week, it was a shock but not a surprise. I’ve seen it before in the research I do, time and time again. In a practical sense, politics is the reason that overfishing continues at a global scale and harmful subsidies threaten the recovery of fish stocks. Like the rest of the world, I have also seen the triumph of slanted politics in recent months through the ongoing abuses of power, rejection of science, and reliance on unfounded radical perspectives by the Trump Administration. As I read your statement from Thursday’s Park Board meeting and listened to Commissioner Mackinnon’s interview on the CBC Early Edition, I could not help but see many parallels.
Activists say our practices are cruel and that we kill whales. I can assure you that neither are true although human activity does kill whales regularly. In the Northwest Atlantic, entanglement in fishing gear was the primary cause of large whale deaths between 1970-2009. Since 1998, 70 orcas from the endangered BC Southern Resident population have gone missing or died. The infant mortality rate in this group is also incredibly high (13 deaths of juveniles one year old or younger), and the bioaccumulation of toxic chemicals — from human systems — is a key threat to the health and survival of these cetaceans. Similarly, the population of belugas in the St. Lawrence has been declining since 2000; it is now estimated at less than 1,000 individuals and 32 calves have been found dead in the last four years alone. Loss of habitat and human-induced noise are believed to be key contributors to this problem.
The day Chester was moved to the Wild Coast exhibit many of us shed tears of joy. When Qila and Aurora died, our collective heart broke. As I heard Commissioner Mackinnon suggest that our current rescued animals be moved to a different facility, or back to the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre on Main Street, I realized just how little the Park Board understands what we do. I also wondered why — if you are so deeply moved by the plight of these animals — you are comfortable with their captivity away from the public eye and off city property. I wondered why you would be comfortable moving our rescued animals to a site that is designed to be a temporary home and in so doing prevent the public from learning about and being inspired by them. A dolphin who lost her flippers in a drift net instantly teaches about harmful fishing gears. A false killer whale who is the first of his species to survive stranding as an infant conveys the importance of veterinary research and care. I have worked for a whale watching company in Vancouver and yes, seeing whales in the wild is incredibly powerful. But at $300 a person, a day trip is also unrealistic and inaccessible for most families. The importance of the animals at the Aquarium is second to none. Why do you not understand their value as ambassadors for their species?
Without a shadow of a doubt the reason I became a marine biologist is because my Nana took me to the Aquarium every month when I was young. The belugas captivated my attention from the very beginning and, since then, learning about and protecting the ocean is all I’ve ever wanted to do. I wonder if you can imagine how hurtful and infuriating it was to hear someone with no formal education in marine biology, no practical experience in veterinary care, and a tainted, erroneous view of our facility attack my colleagues and paint our work as immoral and unethical. Please try to consider what that must have felt like. The decision you have made — all of you — is unfounded in anything but political power and cardboard signs. And due to your desire to make a name for yourselves, it is the marine mammals of the Canadian west coast and the future generations of our society who will suffer from this decision.