Vancouver Aquarium volunteer speaks out against misguided criticisms

Dec 19 2017, 10:26 am

Over the last several weeks, I have found myself in the crossfire for defending the Vancouver Aquarium. However, I can no longer keep quiet.

I work there as a volunteer and I take much of what is being said personally. As one of its 1,000 volunteers, the Aquarium gives me a platform to talk about conservationist issues that are very important to me. I engage visitors on issues regarding all the marine mammals, including the sea otters, sea lions and seals, but it is the cetaceans that really attract attention.

Whales, porpoises and dolphins mesmerize people. They are certainly beautiful, graceful and intelligent, and the connections people make with these animals – each with a personality and story – make them receptive to conservation messages and calls to action. It is that connection that inspires them to make those seemingly insignificant changes in their lifestyles which can make all the difference for cetacean populations in the wild.

What saddens me most in this debate is that very few people actually seem to be taking the time to review the issues connected to cetaceans in captivity in detail, the underlying facts and – most importantly – the consequences of any actions in their entirety.

Very few seem to be willing to really think this through and are basing their opinions on rogue researchers and their bizarre claims that do not follow the concepts and processes of real science.

Some watch a movie about whales at an aquarium and they blankly apply that to any other organization in the world without pausing to check the facts.

For once, many seem to be in denial of the fact that four out of six cetaceans (whales, porpoises and dolphins) that currently live at the Vancouver Aquarium are in fact rescued and rehabilitated animals that were deemed non-releasable – not by the Vancouver Aquarium, but by the appropriate government agencies.

Park Board commissioner Barnes said Monday night that she did not wish to see the animals released or moved to another facility, but that she found it no longer acceptable to keep cetaceans in captivity and wants the cetacean program to be phased out. But what about the fate of future rescued, non-releasable animals in need of a permanent home?

Most simply mention ‘whales’, few are including dolphins when discussing the issue of cetaceans at the Vancouver Aquarium – but nobody talks about the two rescued harbour porpoises.

Jack and Daisy were both found stranded when they were only between four and six weeks old. These two harbour porpoises had to be tube-fed and learned even the most elemental skills from humans.

Animals requiring such intensive care, especially when they are found as babies, seldom are candidates for release. And I do not know of a single case in recent history where a harbour porpoise found as a neonate was ever successfully released back into the wild. In fact, the survival of Jack and Daisy was a bit of a miracle, considering that those found at that age rarely make it at all.

The Vancouver Aquarium released a rescued harbour porpoise last year. Levi was old enough to have the survival skills to be released back into the wild, despite the intensive care that he also received by the incredible people that devote their lives to rescuing and rehabilitating these animals – a job more intense than most of us could ever imagine.

We are seeing a global increase in cetacean strandings. So what happens if the next harbour porpoise is washed ashore? What if it’s a baby just like Jack and Daisy that is too weak to swim, malnourished and dehydrated? What if it’s a sea otter that has been critically wounded and blinded by shotgun hits to the head? Are we going to let it die because its chances at survival in the wild are slim?

Some extremists want the Aquarium to euthanize these animals, others are talking about sea pens.

The first proposal is just insane, considering that many of these animals only require rescue due to human actions in the first place. This is not natural selection, we are basically just cleaning up our own mess, and I find that it is our obligation as human beings to give them a chance at survival and to provide them with a home.

With the second idea, sea pens are not only very costly to build and to maintain, but are potentially dangerous solution for these animals – nothing like this kind of enclosure exists as a permanent home for rescued cetaceans in Canada, and regulations and industry guidelines would make such an undertaking almost impossible.

So what will we do with future cetaceans in need of a permanent home? Ship them off to the United States or another country willing to take them if they cannot be released?

Furthermore, harbour porpoises are not the only animals that could potentially end up in captivity when deemed non-releasable. Small cetaceans are particularly vulnerable; dolphins, or other porpoise species, get entangled in fixed fishing nets all the time; mothers die in boat collisions, succumb to malnutrition (overfishing is an issue) or simply get lost.

The Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre is the only facility of its kind in Canada that is capable of rehabilitating cetaceans. It has some of the best people in the field working around the clock to successfully nurse these animals back to health.

The unconditional ban of cetaceans at the Vancouver Aquarium would mean the end to their ability to give these animals a permanent home – that is for sure.

As a volunteer I get to talk about the real issues. According to a Greenpeace/WDC study, 300,000 whales, porpoises and dolphins die annually in fixed fishing nets alone – against a total of much less than 3,000 cetaceans that are believed to live in captivity worldwide.

The current discussion takes away from this very important issue, one that the Vancouver Aquarium is trying to address.

Hana and Helen, the two Pacific white-sided dolphins at the Vancouver Aquarium, became victims of that unethical fishing method. Their rescue story – a story of survival – inspires hundreds to re-consider their approach to sustainable seafood.

But the Aquarium does not stop there: ongoing research into echolocation done with these animals contributes to a larger effort aimed at developing fishing nets that small cetaceans such as whales and dolphins can better detect. It also aids the development of deterrent devices that, when attached to fishing nets, have already proven to be effective where their use was enforced and monitored, but research and development needs to continue.

Most importantly, these animals are cared for by people who love them. The whales, porpoises and dolphins at the Aquarium have a deep connection to the marine mammal trainers that work with them, people as passionate as those that work at the Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre to save the lives of these vulnerable creatures. They are in excellent health thanks to a team of devoted veterinary professionals led by leading experts in the field.

I am convinced that the Vancouver Aquarium is doing excellent work – work that also depends on the cetaceans in their care, some of which would not have a chance of survival in the wild. It inspires thousands to make a difference.

Marcus Wernicke is a volunteer at the Vancouver Aquarium, where he works as a gallery educator. He is very passionate about conservation issues and engages visitors in discussions about threats that marine mammals face in the wild.