The Vancouver Park Board has voted to refer a motion to hold a plebiscite on the keeping of cetaceans at the Vancouver Aquarium to staff, in a heated meeting on Monday night.
The meeting was packed with vocal members of the public, holding signs reading “All whales matter” and “The public demands a whale referendum.”
At various points throughout the meeting the crowd interrupted proceedings and were asked to keep quiet as commissioners debated the motion.
The motion proposes asking Vancouver residents if they support the keeping of cetaceans by the Aquarium on the 2018 Municipal Election ballot.
Moved by Park Board Commissioner Sarah Kirby-Yung, it also proposes asking the Aquarium not to bring in any cetaceans until after the results of the vote are in.
At the meeting, Kirby-Yung noted the Aquarium played a “significant role” in fostering appreciation of marine life, and is a “beloved” institution in Vancouver.
“Having said that, this is an issue people feel strongly about,” said Kirby-Yung. “This is about doing our job to listen to the citizens of Vancouver.”
Kirby-Yung said the deaths of two belugas, Aurora and Qila, at the Aquarium last year had opened up public dialogue on the issue like she’d never seen before.
“The average Vancouverite… really wants to have a discussion around this issue,” said Kirby-Yung.
“They’re struggling with an organization they loved and grew up with, but are less and less comfortable with having cetaceans there.”
‘A referendum is a fairly blunt tool’
Speaking on public interest, Kirby-Yung said she had been contacted by multiple people who wished to speak on the issue at he Park Board meeting that night.
However, the public is only invited to speak at committee, after issues have been referred to Park Board staff.
As a result, Commissioner Evans moved to do just that, to allow staff to consider alternatives and the public to address the board at an open meeting.
“A referendum to me is a fairly blunt tool that gets wielded irresponsibly in some cases,” said Evans. “So I am not convinced without further analysis and discussion that a referendum is the right tool.”
Evans also said it was not clear who would be funding the plebiscite
‘This question deserves to be asked’
If the Park Board were to vote to call for a plebiscite on keeping cetaceans at the Aquarium, it would then go to City Council to decide on.
Evans said she would like to find out whether Council would even entertain the idea, and if not, the Park Board would need to consider other options.
Amid rowdy cries and applause from the crowd, Evans also said she wanted to give the Aquarium a chance to do “what many people would consider ‘the right thing.'”
“A plebiscite is the ultimate form of public consultation. It enables all of Vancouver to have a voice,” said Kirby-Yung. “I think this is a question that deserves to be asked.”
The Aquarium currently has only three cetaceans in captivity, all rescued – Helen, a Pacific white sided dolphin, Chester, a false killer whale, also a type of dolphin, and Daisy, a harbour porpoise.
Towards the end of the meeting, as commissioners attempted to vote on the referral, discussion was completely interrupted by the crowd, chanting “Moratorium now!”
Finally, commissioners passed the motion to defer the proposal for a vote on the keeping of cetaceans in captivity by a majority of four votes to three.
The Park Board estimates it will take staff one month to report back on the issue.