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Vancouver Aquarium responds to expansion plan Backlash

An update to this story can be found here. Richard Branson you lost us at Vancouver Aquarium

Vancouver Aquarium Backlash

John Nightingale Vancouver Aquarium trying to acquire dolphins and whales
John Nightingale
Vancouver Aquarium

Minutes after the February 19th article on reporting on the expansion plans of the Vancouver Aquarium, a social media firestorm erupted.  For the first time John Nightingale, president and CEO of the Vancouver Aquarium confirmed that the plans included acquiring more dolphins and whales for their exhibits.  It didn’t help that in a follow-up article Nightingale rejected opponents stating “That’s the same petition by, in this case some of the same extremists and some new ones, that I’ve heard all 20 years I’ve been in Vancouver.”  Apparently 20 years of public disapproval didn’t faze Nightingale in the least.  Twitter and Facebook became a blur of angry accusations, slurs and condemnation directed at the aquarium and specifically at the director.  An example of a few:

vancouver backlash over Beluga expansion

It didn’t take long for the Aquarium to respond.  Less than 12 hours later, a carefully worded, self-praising glossy response was posted on their website denouncing the claims of animal advocates and anti-cap protestors.  Industry buzzwords and catch phrases fill the page between strains of self-righteous indignation.  Flag flying conservation, education and public good statements intersect with seemingly factual information.  A challenge is made and the tone is overall angry and contemptuous.  Key pieces of the document could have come directly from the SeaWorld PR team.  The page starts off with this statement:

“We would like to take this opportunity to provide facts in the light of the continued circulation of inaccurate messages that have been shared by some who may be misinformed about our animals and our conservation efforts.”

Such lofty words as ‘facts’ and ‘misinformed’ are commonly found in SeaWorld messaging.  The words are supposed to imply that the real experts should not be questioned. Of course the stand-by ‘conservation’ phrase is thrown in for good measure.

Based on the exposure of the pay scale for some Aquarium employees which in some cases is $120,000 – $300,000 per year, the post trots out the familiar non-profit prose of  “conservation, research and education programs” citing an example of researching Dolphin safe fishing nets.  Unfortunately, nets are not the leading cause of Dolphin deaths, humans are.  Just this year alone, Ceta-Base recorded that “since the start of the season on September 1st, 2013 a total of 1,450 dolphins from six species have been driven into the cove in Taiji, Japan. Of this total 834 were slaughtered, 158 were live-capture and 457 were released”.   If fishing nets are the best example to be given of research that benefits the greater science of Cetacean conservation, it is wholly lacking in context and relevance.

Next the page dives into the source of its current inventory of Belugas and Dolphins, yet avoids revealing the source of the animals it wishes to acquire for the expansion.  There has been no report of a Beluga walking out of the ocean and willingly into a pen.  A challenge is given regarding the presence of any drive-hunt Dolphins in an AZA accredited aquarium with the statement “To claim otherwise is deliberately misleading and dishonest.” However, this statement is in fact false.  Ceta-Base lists the presence of a confirmed Taiji Dolphin in Hawaii at the research center.

This statement is perhaps the most absurd and upsetting based on its blatant untruth:

“Our responsible breeding program, managed in partnership with accredited institutions in North America, enables us to maintain a population of marine mammals at the Aquarium that continues to contribute to vital public engagement and interpretation.”

The truth is that of the 8 Dolphins that have been under ‘exceptional care’ of the aquarium, 6 of them are dead.  The responsible breeding program has resulted in 1 stillborn, 1 miscarriage and not a single living calf. 

The lengthy post then makes the most absurd of arguments for Marine Mammals in captivity.  “There is no real substitute for connecting with our oceans and animals first-hand to generate a feeling of interest and engagement”.  This is the very selfish premise of the basis of need for Aquariums everywhere, that if not for them the world would have no exposure to the animals.  To this I say, “As millions of kids play with plastic dinosaurs”.  There is not an ounce of credibility to the claim that continuing to capture more marine mammals for display displaces the ability of the public to see cetaceans in the ocean, to watch incredible IMAX films of their beauty and power, or to read about the incredible intelligence, social structure and lives in their natural environment.  There is little to be gained scientifically or in public education that can be observed in a concrete tank.  The study of human behavior is not based on the observations of an inmate in isolation on a life sentence.

The expansion of the Vancouver Aquarium is funded by a bevy of supporters led by Teck Mining Company, who admitted to polluting the Columbia River for 100 years.  They and others who financially donate to the Vancouver Aquarium are the true “misinformed” public.  There is little doubt that the statements regarding ‘partnership with accredited institutions in North America” refers to SeaWorld.  There is also no doubt that the PR resources, funding and the U.S. based company does not guide political outreach.  SeaWorld was thwarted in their efforts to obtain 11 Beluga whales along with the Georgia Aquarium and this is a thinly veiled ‘Plan B’ to address the genetic diversity issue in their breeding program.

In a recent poll that SeaWorld attempted to influence by having their own employees weigh in on, 80% of the American public stated that they would not mind if there were no cetaceans in captivity.  The Vancouver Aquarium, SeaWorld and others in the display aquaria business continue to staunchly defend the industry using the same clichés, slick phrasing and citing in-house experts as irrefutable evidence stating that they provide some benefit to the animals, conservation and the public.  The truth is that in the public’s view, the captive Marine Mammal industry is the ‘new big tobacco’ and the clock is ticking on their viability.

One last thought: Adding to his ability to influence local government in avoiding a public referendum on the proposed expansion, Nightingale is married to City of Vancouver senior cultural planner Jacquie Gijssen. The aquarium has already landed $15 million from the federal government and $10 million from Victoria.

Jim Smith
Connect on Twitter @VisualDataPros

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