Dr. John Nightingale, President and CEO of The Vancouver Aquarium, announced a 12-year beluga conservation program, with plans to open a new and enlarged exhibit in the spring of 2019 and increase investment into the Marine Mammal Research Program. A small group of non-breeding beluga whales, currently on loan to other facilities in the United States, will be brought back to the Vancouver Aquarium to participate in critical research and public education.
The announcement comes several months after the unexpected deaths of Aurora and Qila, two female belugas that died just 10 days apart of unknown causes, despite heroic efforts from veterinarian Martin Haulena and his team. In spite of extensive testing, Dr. Haulena has stated that no infectious agent has been found that could explain the death of these belugas. The aquarium is still awaiting further tests, but Haulena is highly suspect of an undetectable toxin. The Vancouver Aquarium has been unable to rule out any malicious activity, and ensures that there will be heightened security measures in the new exhibit.
This is a controversial move for the Aquarium, whose stance on cetaceans in captivity has faced some public backlash in recent years. Despite vocal objections from animal rights activists, Dr. John Nightingale insists that the research done with captive belugas increases the limited body of scientific knowledge on this threatened arctic species, and states that the new facility will be designed with a “Research First” paradigm. The Aquarium’s research is essential to the conservation of belugas in the St. Lawrence, whose population has dwindled to only 800 whales and continues to decline at 8% per year. Research involving captive belugas allows scientists to study these animals in ways that would be impossible in the wild. For example, captive studies have lead to a greater understanding of their metabolic processes and dietary requirements, an area of research that is fraught with logistical challenges in the open ocean. In a captive setting, cetaceans can be trained to give voluntary blood draws and use metabolic chambers, and the caloric content of their diet can be closely regulated. Scientific research with belugas at the Aquarium has also helped to inform current conservation work taking place with wild belugas in the St. Lawrence; for example, Dr. Vergara studied the vocalizations of beluga calves at the Aquarium and found that they communicate with their mothers using low frequency “contact calls”. It is thought that increased vessel traffic in the St. Lawrence may be masking these important calls, disrupting communication and group cohesion.
Human disturbance and climate change are placing undue pressure on belugas in the St. Lawrence Estuary, and it is therefore critical to fund research that will ensure the survival of this population. Not only will the new beluga conservation program pioneer research projects using captive animals, it will also draw visitors and increase available funding for more studies in the wild. Having belugas on display will also allow visitors to develop a personal connection with these animals, and inspire them to learn how they can help to protect this iconic Canadian species from extinction.
“In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”- Baba Dioum