Cetacean scientists say aquarium decision 'banning research' crucial to endangered animals

Scientists say the Park Board's decision to ban cetaceans at the Vancouver Aquarium has far-reaching implications for research on endangered marine mammals in B.C.

'Critical' research

Andrew Trites, the director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit at UBC's Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, called the decision "short-sighted."

A lot of research can be done in the wild, he said, but certain research necessary to cetacean conservation can only be conducted with animals under controlled conditions

"We wouldn't be doing it if there was nothing to be learned. It's so critical," he said.

Trites noted, for instance, that questions remain regarding the declining population of southern resident whales in B.C.

"Are the animals getting enough to eat? Maybe that's what the trouble is. Well, how do you know how much food an animal needs to eat? You can only do that if you can determine their metabolic rates and look at their ability to assimilate and digest different types of food. You can only do that with a captive animal — there's absolutely no way to get that in the wild," he said.

"The banning of keeping cetaceans in Vancouver is effectively banning research and turning our backs on the survival of endangered and threatened populations," said Trites.

"To me, that's a travesty."

Independent researcher applauds ban

Not every researcher is in agreement. Hermann Meuter, the co-founder of Cetacea Lab, a whale monitoring station on Gil Island, B.C., was pleased to hear about the decision.

"I think any research on such a highly developed species as a cetacean in a captive environment [is very limited.] I would not trust any scientific paper that is projecting findings of captive whales onto a wild population. It's just not fair to these whales," he said.

Meuter said that studying areas like whales' acoustics and family life can only be done in the wild.

"You cannot really mimic the behaviour of wild whales in a concrete pool," he said.

But cetacean researchers with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) have done studies on underwater noise using captive whales.

The aquarium currently holds three cetaceans: a false killer whale, a Pacific white-sided dolphin and a harbour porpoise.