Saving whales and dolphins the right way

If passed, Bill S-203, which bans keeping cetaceans in captivity, would have a 'profoundly negative impact on our ability to protect whales and dolphins,' writes John Nightingale, president and chief executive officer of the Vancouver Aquarium. The facility has recently announced plans to resume its beluga exhibit in 2019.

A bill currently under consideration by the Senate, S-203, would bar whale and dolphin captivity across Canada, but the head of the Vancouver Aquarium says the legislation would actually inhibit the ability to conduct crucial research on the animals or rescue them, such as Chester, a rescued false killer whale housed at the aquarium.Photograph courtesy of Ocean Wise

PUBLISHED :Monday, Oct. 23, 2017 11:00 AM

The Senate has been dealing with a quiet controversy over a piece of legislation that falls into an all-too-common trap: it looks good on the surface but would have terrible and perverse consequences if passed into law. The bill in question is S-203, which purports to end the captivity of cetaceans, but would in fact have a profoundly negative impact on our ability to protect whales and dolphins.

Humans are pushing life on our shared planet to the brink, with ever-increasing pressures on other species and their fragile ecosystems. Earlier this year, scientists said a “biological annihilation” of wildlife in recent decades means the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history is underway, and it’s worse than they thought. Entire families of plants and animals, including birds, amphibians, reptiles, arthropods and mammals, are disappearing—up to 140,000 species per year—making it the greatest loss of biodiversity since the extinction of the dinosaurs.

Our oceans are not escaping this devastation: the list of marine mammals on Canada’s Species At Risk Act is far too long, and includes critically endangered populations of beluga whales, killer whales, and right whales struggling to survive against the multiple assaults of underwater noise, overfishing and ship strikes.

Bill S-203 does nothing to help any of them. In fact, it only stands to inhibit our ability to conserve, protect, and even save Canada’s whales and dolphins.


Turning the tide on extinction will take effort by all of us. For more than six decades, our non-profit marine science centre has worked tirelessly to conserve and protect aquatic life.

We do that in several ways, first, by raising awareness and inspiring action. Science has proven that aquariums foster a connection to nature. More than half of our 1.2 million visitors last year were children. Experiential learning—seeing the real thing—makes a huge difference in not just comprehension, but in the emotional attachment we need to foster in more people.

We conduct research—lots of it—about animals in our care and those in the wild. It is in aquariums that we have learned about cetacean physiology: the mechanisms, and their interactions, that operate within a living system. We’ve pioneered research on whales’ hearing and acoustic communication. We’ve learned about their diet and energy requirements. We’ve learned about lung mechanics and pulmonary function. We’ve tested field equipment, such as hydrophones, mark-recapture bands, and non-invasive attachments for satellite tags and cameras.

And research with animals at Vancouver Aquarium often carries on to the field. In the St. Lawrence Estuary, our scientists are measuring the acoustic communication of beluga whales to learn how we can mitigate the impact of underwater noise on that endangered population.


In the Gulf of California, an emergency rescue effort is underway for the critically endangered vaquita porpoise. Porpoises at Vancouver Aquarium provided data for this bold plan.

And our scientists are studying endangered killer whales using images taken from a drone to measure and assess changes in the whales’ length and girth—to determine if they’re getting enough fish to eat.

To those who suggest it: no, we haven’t learned enough. Until there is a time that human activity is no longer impacting ecosystems and animals, such a thing won’t be possible.

This is not the time to be phasing out the facilities and expertise that can help wildlife in an unknown future. We have only begun to scratch the surface of what we can do, with species survival programs, breeding programs, reintroductions, and headstarting projects for species at risk. Zoos and aquariums offer critical elements in these efforts that other stakeholders simply can’t: space and skills.


Around the world, facilities like ours have helped save species like the black-footed ferret, the California condor, and, at Vancouver Aquarium, the Panamanian golden frog. We have the necessary elements: world class veterinarians, biologists, husbandry experts, and facilities—always trained and ready.

Programs like these take time to develop, and expertise is gained through experience. Unfortunately for some species, the science will not provide solutions fast enough for us to help, but we believe it’s important to try. Bill S-203 would make it a criminal offence to care for whales and dolphins; if we can’t provide a home for a population of whales and dolphins at the aquarium, then over time we will lose all of the expertise, the space and personnel who would make it possible. Also, this bill would put us in a very troubling ethical dilemma with our rescue program. What will be our options if this bill passes and we find ourselves with stranded whales and dolphins too weak (or orphaned calves too young) to make it on their own in open waters? Would this bill force us to euthanize the very animals we work to save?

We agree that Canada must do more to protect whales and dolphins. But this bill is not the answer. This piece of legislation will impact our ability to teach future generations about the mammals that live in our oceans. It will limit research to aid species at risk, and our ability to rescue stranded cetaceans. Indeed, the far-reaching consequences of Bill S-203 could well be the end of any cetacean species survival program before we’ve even had a chance to try.

John Nightingale, PhD, is a marine biologist and president and chief executive officer of the Vancouver Aquarium. 


The Hill Times