Why a plebiscite on captive cetaceans? Why now?

Post by Stuart Mackinnon in


A pivotal vote that will affect the Vancouver Aquarium happens Monday evening

Last Monday I submitted a motion to the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation to hold a plebiscite during the 2011 civic election on the phasing out of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) in captivity in Vancouver parks. The latest death of a beluga whale calf in June 2010 at the Vancouver aquarium has brought up once again the topic of cetaceans in captivity. According to the LifeForce Foundation, at least 36 cetaceans, including 9 orcas, 7 narwhals, 8 belugas and 12 Pacific White Sided Dolphins have died at the Vancouver Aquarium. The academy award winning documentary film, The Cove, has brought to the world’s attention the industrial killing and capture of dolphin populations. The Vancouver Province newspaper on June 23, 2010 wrote, in an editorial, that the public are calling into question the wisdom and morality of keeping captive cetaceans that otherwise deserve to be born, live, and die in their natural environment, saying "the latest in a long line of whale deaths at the aquarium — this time one-year-old beluga calf Nala — calls into question the wisdom and morality of keeping captive whales and other large marine animals. It is a practice that must end."

Aaron Jasper, the Vision Vancouver Chair of the Park Board, in a press release last week called into question the legalities of holding a plebiscite, claiming that I am “putting the Park Board at risk of a potential lawsuit, in spite of his prior knowledge of a legally binding agreement with the Vancouver Aquarium.” Commissioner Jasper does not state what this ‘legal binding’ agreement is, nor the basis of a potential lawsuit. Nor does he state that my motion passed through the city’s own legal department and was approved by both the acting GM of the Park Board and himself as Chair.

My motion is not about whales and dolphins in captivity, nor is it about the Aquarium. It is about the rights of the citizens of Vancouver to express their views on what happens in our public parks. Commissioner Jasper would have you believe that this cannot be done, and so now, according to him, the issue becomes one of government liability when conducting the normal business of government. If the government, in this case the city, cannot conduct normal business—in this case conducting a democratic survey in the form of a non-binding plebiscite—by the terms of a lease or contract, then I would ask, is this lease or contract binding or lawful? In other words, can the city sign away the public’s democratic rights in a contract? Now stop and think about that for a moment. Can the city sign away your democratic rights? I don’t think so, and I don’t for a minute believe that the courts would allow for that either. In which case, Commissioner Jasper’s release was simply a red herring and a personal attack.

Animals in captivity have a long and controversial history in Vancouver. In 1993 there was a referendum on the fate of the Stanley Park zoo and 53% of the electorate voted for its closure. The zoo was closed down three years later. In 1996 an NPA Park Board passed a motion which called for a further referendum if the Aquarium wished to expand. In 2005 a majority COPE Board set a referendum on holding cetaceans in captivity—similar to the plebiscite I am calling for—during the 2008 civic election. The next Board, which was dominated once again by the NPA, rescinded both of those previous motions and instead passed a motion stating that “it is the Board’s intention that in 2015 the board review the Parks Control By-law relating to captive cetaceans”. The motion did not deny the Board the right to review the by-law earlier, nor to collect information in order to review the by-law.

The plebiscite I am calling for is non-binding, and would be done in order for the Park Board to collect information for the review. So why hold the plebiscite in 2011, 4 years before the review? The provincial government set up an electoral review commission to look at local governance in British Columbia. This commission reported out this spring and the provincial government accepted all of its recommendations. One recommendation is to change the length of time between civic elections from 3 years to 4 years. As civic elections are held in November, the next election after November 2011 would be November 2015—after the review of the cetacean by-law. Therefore, the 2011 civic election is the last opportunity to hold a plebiscite during a civic vote. To make these bylaw decisions without prior public consultation would be contradictory to our mandate as well as disrespectful and irresponsible.

Whether you agree with keeping cetaceans in captivity or not, I think this motion is important. When politicians attempt to strip us of our democratic rights and hide behind vague and intangible legalese when denying us the right to express our voices, there is something terribly wrong.

I believe the citizens of Vancouver have the right to express their views on this controversial issue. This is why at the next meeting of the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation I will be bringing a motion proposing that a plebiscite be held during the 2011 Vancouver civic elections, asking the public if they are in favour of phasing out existing exhibits that contain cetaceans, on land leased from the Vancouver Park Board. The people of Vancouver have the right to choose. I believe this plebiscite is the right thing to do.

- post by Stuart Mackinnon. Stuart Mackinnon is a Green Party member and Vancouver park board commissioner.


The idea of halting the current norm of keeping Cetaceans at the Vancouver Aquarium is a very bad one.

First off. The Cetaceans kept there are unreleasable and have been deemed so. This point is not affected by the "phasing out" solution. Why? Well, if there are other unreleasable Cetaceans in the future who were, for exampled, rescued, then what do we do with them? Give them to Sea world? Marine land? Other places that make them do inane crowd pleasing tricks? You won't see the seals balancing beach balls on their nose at the Vancouver Aquarium, nor dolphins jumping through hoola hoops (which are on fire). Essentially it wouldn't be humane to force such a closure. It may not be much of a life living in such a small space; but it's better than no life at all.

Secondly, important research is done at the Vancouver Aquarium that can benefit both these species and humans.

Thirdly, these exhibits do allow for some direct education on these animals; TV can only show so much.

These are the reasons I would be voting against such a measure. But the thought of even bringing this up in an election worries me because there are obviously people who don't understand the nature of the situation and only look at the surface. I say this because I can see no good reason for the proposal. Thank goodness the plebiscite would be non-binding!

McKinnon's timing is all too typical of left-wing politics. Take a headline and try and make gains from it. Jack Layton does this all the time. Soldier dies, pander to the anti-war vote.
Beluga dies, pander to the PETA vote.
Often it's the lowest denominator of all, "the Nationalist vote".
It just comes across as a way to get his name in the paper, as opposed to having an actual political strategy.


Notice how your post has absolutely nothing to do with the topic, the issue or anything other than the cheap political divisions to which you so happily subscribe? Grow up a little.

Adding more of these animals into captivity is a bad thing, although the current ones must remain in captivity as they are 'unreleasable' for numerous reasons.

'It may not be much of a life living in such a small space; but it's better than no life at all.'

Really? Would you be content forceably being caged in a box a fraction of the size of your 'range'? You get food, good food at that, but you have absolutely no hope of escape or to ever meet new people save perhaps 1 or 2 in your entire life?

Keeping cetaceans in tiny pools is barbaric. Alec's comments about them being "unreleasable" and keeping them for "research" and "education" reasons is laughable, to say the least. Time to move on, folks.

"It may not be much of a life living in such a small space; but it's better than no life at all."

Not surprisingly, such things come down to individual perspectives. Generalizations (and speaking on behalf of others when you have no idea of their wishes) isn't appropriate IMO.

Locked-in man seeks right to die

"A man with "locked-in syndrome" has begun legal action, asking the director of public prosecutions to clarify the law on so-called mercy killing.

Tony Nicklinson, 56, wants his wife to be allowed to help him die without the risk of being prosecuted for murder.

Mr Nicklinson, of Chippenham, Wiltshire, communicates by blinking or nodding his head at letters on a board.

His lawyers say he is "fed up with life" and does not wish to spend the next 20 years in this condition."


"Alec's comments about them being "unreleasable" and keeping them for "research" and "education" reasons is laughable, to say the least."

Alec is actually correct. Tamed and domesticated animals would have a very difficult time surviving in the wild, though not impossible. Imagine releasing your pet dog into a jungle. They don't necessarily have the skills or experience to survive without the help of humans. So, in fact, releasing already-captured animals into the wild again would be more cruel than keeping them in captivity and caring for them.

But, whether these animals, or any animals for that matter, should be captured and caged to begin with is still up for debate. Social and intelligent animals like whales and dolphins are severely traumatized by capture as it rips them from their natural habitat and their close-knit circle of family and friends. Imagine that being done to you.

However, if the animal was rescued from certain death by humans, then I don't see a problem with keeping it in captivity to protect it as long as it's cared for during the remainder of its life.

great reference, Chris. Locked-in Syndrome? Do you even know how that one works? When the whales are 100% paralyzed and can only communicate by blinking while being read a string of letters, your point will be taken.

And boohoo, you missed the direct reference.

My point was that if this was such a passionate issue for McKinnon, he should be yapping about it all the time. It's only when there is a headline he can attach his name to that we hear about his principles.


You're assuming that McKinnon has never broached this subject before - because the media didn't report on it.

There was another 'touchy' topic surrounding a very recent decision made be the Mayor and Jasper - surrounding the replacement of the granite at the Stanley Park seawall. The fact that they gave the contract o a Chinese company rather than a local co. And, the money for the replacement is coming from Federal Stimulus dollars - $2 M.

Global was the only media that ran a brief on it during the evening news one night. That was it - no other outlet picked it up.


Their movements and communications are very restricted compared to their capabilities in the wild. I think it's an apt, if not exact comparison.

I wasn't aware that dolphins voted Liberal. It had, frankly, never occurred that orcas favoured left over right. I never knew that cetaceans shared our sense of politics at all.

I do know that with every new study of cetacean behaviour we are informed by science of the remarkable intelligence, sensitivity, group characteristics and communications skills of these remarkable creatures.

Excepting animals that have been injured and cannot safely be returned to the wild, it seems clear that we may be doing great and irreversible harm to beings as alert and social as ourselves.

It is not necessary to anthropomorphize these creatures in order to understand the suffering we cause them.

We no longer engage in bear-baiting. We believe that abusing a dog should send you to jail. Humans have a conscience for a reason.

And soon -- not soon enough -- we may accept moral culpability for what we are doing to creatures that may -- in their own worlds -- be as intelligent and aware as ourselves.


A better comparison would be someone sentenced to life in prison. Are you suggesting that allowing that person to opt for capital punishment would be more humane?

Not that I would support Commissioner Mackinnon's motion or referendum.....but the Visionistas could have at least allowed him to table the Motion and then they could vote against it at the Parks Board meeting.
What a bunch of bullies this Vision gang has become. Too bad...Vancouverites we were hoping for more consultation and respect but sadly this is not happening yet.


I don't think that's a better comparison. The whales and dolphins at the Aquarium have committed no crime whatsoever.


They are not disabled either - so what's your point?


I already answered this once. Here you go again. My earlier comment:

"Their movements and communications are very restricted compared to their capabilities in the wild. I think it's an apt, if not exact comparison."

Ric O'Barry, once trainer for the show 'Flipper' but now a passionate opponent of keeping cetaceans in captivity, had his road to Damascus moment when a dolphin killed itself to escape its life in captivity. The facilities at the Aquarium are clearly inadequate for these animals, the goldfish in my backyard pond have proportionately far more room and a more natural environment. The death rate speaks for itself.

Certainly, like institutionalised prisoners, the current stock will have to remain. However I'd be very happy to see Vancouver take the lead in beginning the end of the exploitation of these creatures.

Mr Mackinnon seems to be one of the increasingly rare breed of politicians who has real and strongly held beliefs, highly provocative things to the likes of Mr Jasper and some posters here.

I like to think that I have "evolved' on this issue.

I don't fault the mammmals minders, who clearly love these creatures. I appreciate whatever knowledge has been gained by studying whales and dolphins by our researchers, some of the best in the world.

But, clearly, the ceaceans are here mostly for our amusement now--and the aquarium's enrichment. I don't think there is anything in nature that says a whale or dolphin must respond to a whistle in order to be fed.

Those animals are pretty much prisoners, no matter how attractive they try to make the cell. I'm not sure how hey would fare if released to the wild now--but surely to god this lot should be the last held in Vancouver.

What harm would it have done to let the people decide what would happen post 2015? Nothing---in fact, it would have povided more certainty and time for the aquarium to accept change and allowed them to adjust their business plan. Wow---planning and policy, from this bunch! Quelle concept!

Kudos to Stuart and ian Robertson for voting for a motion to take this important question to the people---brickbats to the other five, who are afraid to let the people speak.

I would have welcomed the opportunity to vote.

I have never agreed with keeping any wild mammals or animals caged for our viewing.

And, I think a strong portion of the population of BC feels the same way.

When any politician uses their elected office to further their own personal ideological agenda, it's time to get rid of them.

Vision Vancouver's members at city council and the parks board have engaged in endless social engineering. Enough!!

To the bleeding hearts crying about whales in an aquarium, if you really care about captive animals, how about looking closely at the thousands of dogs held captive in 600 sq ft condos?

If we're going to order up plebiscites about whales, I want one about limiting dog ownership in the city to one dog per dwelling.

This council and parks board represent the absolute worst in the past 30 years.

When any politician uses their elected office to further their own personal ideological agenda, it's time to get rid of them.

Vision Vancouver's members at city council and the parks board have engaged in endless social engineering. Enough!!

To the bleeding hearts crying about whales in an aquarium, if you really care about captive animals, how about looking closely at the thousands of dogs held captive in 600 sq ft condos?

If we're going to order up plebiscites about whales, I want one about limiting dog ownership in the city to one dog per dwelling.

This council and parks board represent the absolute worst in the past 30 years.

Interesting commentary by Jamie Lee Hamilton regarding the Park Board meeting last night and Aaron Jasper in particular...


And this little exchange with Jasper on her Facebook page...


This thread is so frustrating...

Firstly, the Vancouver Aquarium does great work with its conservation and education programs. It was through being impressed by their integrity and adherence to these pro-wildlife principles that I decided to shell out money to not only be a member, but a donating supporter. It is certainly heads and shoulders above places like Sea World where the marine mammals are mostly used for spectacles and entertainment (i.e. dolphins jumping through hoops).

The large marine mammals on site (belugas, sea otters, dolphins) are there because they have been rehabilitated from injuries that would otherwise leave them up to the cruel fate of natural selection (survival of the fittest). If you've ever taken one of the more in depth tours of the aquarium (at a premium cost of course) you would also get to see the inner workings of the aquarium and the rehabilitation pools that they have for various seals, walruses, and other belugas.. all of which the public NEVER sees, and NEVER becomes exhibit fodder.

I've travelled to many aquariums and zoos around the world and the only place that I have come across so far that bests the vancouver aquarium for the good work that they do is the Singapore Zoo.

I get the feeling some of these opponents to the aquarium haven't been to the aquarium for a long time. The sea otter show consists of someone standing on a rock platform, educating the audience for 10 minutes regarding the keystone species impact on the environment and why we need sea otters to flourish as a species. No show, no spectacle.

The beluga show involves a lot of educational talking where the belugas are trained to perform basic tasks to allow the audience to see their physical attributes clearer (i.e. fin, tail) to facilitate the learning experience. And yes, they will blow water at the front row as well. This isn't a spectacle by any stretch of imagination. The dolphin show is very much the same.

When tourists who have been to other zoos and aquariums come here their experience stands out because on the emphasis on education, and it showcases Vancouver as a city that embraces green living and sustainability.

The idea that an aquarium is obsolete as an educational tool, and then to bolster that argument by saying that there are better natural alternatives is asinine. It is impossible to expect the majority of low-income to middle-class families can afford for their children to take $50-$200 per person whale watching adventures to see them in their natural habitat... or to afford the opportunity to have their kids experience scuba diving, snorkeling, a trip to hawaii to see tropical fish etc... The aquarium is an educational compromise that allows the MAJORITY of the population a chance to see and learn first hand about something that they may never have a chance at grasping in their daily lives.... so that when we talk about saving salmon or seals and whatnot, they have some context to work with and conservation efforts gain more traction.

In the end, the revenues generated from the exhibits enable the aquarium to help a SIGNIFICANTLY larger number of marine mammals/life, and that is what people absolutely FAIL to understand. In the capitalist society that we live in, without a hook or draw you can't get the vast public to buy into conservation/preservation/education with their WALLETS, and you certainly aren't going to get enough of that from government sources. The aquarium is a revenue source that facilitates all of these good things.

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