By Michelle Helou
The tragic death of two beluga whales at Vancouver Aquarium has started a much-needed debate about the ethics of cetacean captivity. Qila died a month ago at just 21 years of age. Her mother Aurora died nine days later.
Aurora was originally captured from the wild in 1990, when she was only 2 years old. Since then, she went through the suffering of watching three of her babies die. Qila was the only one to survive past the age of 3. Tuvaq died just before his third birthday, Tiqa died a little after reaching 3, and Nala died before she was 1 year old.
In the wild, beluga whales have an average life span of 35 to 50 years. This is in stark contract to the average life expectancy of 18 to 33 years in captivity. Over the years, 40 whales have died at the Vancouver Aquarium. To put things in perspective, only 40% of captive-bred belugas at Vancouver Aquarium have survived to the age of 3 years old, and only 20% survived to the age of 5.
The recent beluga deaths prompted the Chair of the Vancouver Park Board to call for a plebiscite on the captivity issue in 2018, and animal welfare advocates are calling on the board to impose an immediate ban on cetacean captivity at the facility.
While the aquarium does not have any more beluga whales, they do have five belugas “on loan” to other aquariums in the US. If adopted, a ban would stop the aquarium from recalling these animals.
Encouragingly, public sentiment indicates the broader community wants an end to cetacean captivity. A poll conducted by local newspaper the Vancouver Sun surveyed close to 100,000 people, and found 70% of voters agreed with a ban.
Earlier this week a new Chair of the Vancouver Park Board was elected. Michael Wiebe, a member of the Green party, declared he will be making his decision about the Vancouver Aquarium during the Board’s next meeting, after listening to both sides.
While there are hopeful signs of change, it is concerning to see Vancouver Aquarium is also going ahead with plans to expand. Meaning the upcoming board decision will be extremely relevant to the aquarium’s future – and to the welfare of cetaceans.
*If you would like to add your voice and ensure beluga whales and other cetaceans are no longer held in captivity at the Vancouver Aquarium, please add your name to the petition here.