Proposed cetacean ban could harm marine mammals, DFO says

The Vancouver Park Board's move to ban cetaceans at the Vancouver Aquarium could spell bad news for some of the stricken marine mammals that are saved by fishery and aquarium teams, says the aquarium.

Each year, the federal fisheries department's Pacific Region receives more than 600 calls about distressed marine mammals, including whales, sea lions and porpoises. Some are sick or stranded or entangled in fishing net.

John Ford, who heads marine mammal research for the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), said if a proposed cetacean ban is approved, some types of rescue marine mammals might not be saved.

"If there is no permanent housing available, the aquarium could either choose not to engage in an effort to rescue the individual, or DFO would not be in a position to authorize it, and the animal would likely be euthanized," Ford said.

Two marine mammals at the Aquarium — Chester, the false killer whale and Daisy, a harbour porpoise — were rescue animals. Both were found stranded as young calves. In both instances, DFO officials decided the animals would not survive in the wild and they were sent to the aquarium.

Rescuers' quandary

Earlier this month, the park board voted unanimously to prepare a bylaw banning cetaceans in captivity in city parks. The aquarium is located in Stanley Park.

The move came as a blow to aquarium staff who said the ban would have a negative impact on research and devastate its marine mammal rescue centre, which is located on Vancouver's port lands.

Aquarium staff have argued that a big part of its role on the West Coast is marine mammal research and rehabilitation.

When a marine mammal needs assistance and rehabilitation, it's up to DFO staff to decide if the animal can be released back to the wild.

DFO official Paul Cottrell said when a marine mammal distress call comes in, his first call is often to aquarium staff, who he relies on for scientific advice.

Neither Chester, the false killer whale, or Daisy the harbour porpoise, could be released because they were too young to survive on their own, said Lindsaye Akhurst, the aquarium's manager of marine mammal rescue.

Akhurst said staff don't know when they set out to rescue a marine mammal, if it can be released into the wild again. ​

"If halfway through the rehabilitation process we realize the animal is non-releasable, then some tough decisions have to be made." she said.

"If we aren't able to do our job, then of course the animals really suffer. It's a big thing for us."

With files from Jack Hauen