Could Vancouver be home to the first sea sanctuary for cetaceans?

Marine scientists envision a place for sea mammals to go if they are released from marine parks and unable to survive in the wild. 

Lolita orca in captivity; early sea pen proposal for San Juan Island
From left: Lolita in captivity (Erika Price photo); a sea pen proposal for the San Juan Islands. (Google)

Vancouver could be the site of the world’s first sea pen sanctuary for cetaceans, says a internationally prominent animal advocate.

Dr. Lori Marino raised the idea during her visit to the city last month, and Whale Lab researcher from the University of Victoria, Dave Duffus, agrees.

“Vancouver is ideal in a lot of ways,” Duffus, an associate geography professor, told Vancouver Observer. “I think Vancouver Aquarium had the first killer whale [in captivity] and it would be an opportunity to really step out of the captivity mold and say, 'We’re interested in doing something better' or undoing something poorly thought out. [Its] time has come.”

Establishing a sanctuary in Canada would demonstrate what Canadians are about, said Duffus. “We’re forward-looking and compassionate people,” he said.

Marino, the Utah-based executive director of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, says a sanctuary site should be chosen not only for its geographical location but for the local public's attitude.

“Do they buy into it? Are they supportive? Are they willing to have something like this in their backyard?”

Marino spoke about an orca sanctuary in Vancouver at the Compassionate Conservation Conference in July.

She wants to see marine mammal scientists, veterinarians, trainers, lawyers, policy-makers, business people and engineers collaborate to determine the best location and model for a sea pen sanctuary for whales and dolphins. She notes there are sanctuaries for elephants, chimpanzees, large cats and bears, but nowhere for sea mammals to go if they are released from marine parks and unable to survive in the wild. But she wants to make sure the first sanctuary that’s established is done right.

Marino and Dr. Naomi Rose, marine mammal scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C., are hosting a workshop on sea pen sanctuaries at the Society for Marine Mammology’s biennial conference in San Francisco in December. A group in Italy is working to establish a sea pen sanctuary and a marine mammal scientist from the Italian group will attend the December event. Marino says she’s also been talking to representatives from the zoo and aquarium industry.

Howard Garrett, co-founder, director and president of the board of the non-profit Orca Network, has registered for the December workshop.

Garrett has been working to see the orca called Lolita returned to Puget Sound by the Miami Seaquarium for decades. He wants to see Lolita spend her last days in the area where she spent her first four years until she was captured and sent to the Miami Seaquarium in 1970.

Concerns about a sea pen in Puget Sound apply to a Vancouver location.

The Free Lolita campaign originally envisioned a sea pen for Lolita (and only her) on the west side of San Juan Island, but organizers have changed the designated site to a horseshoe-shaped inlet on the east side of Orcas Island, which is more protected from the weather.

The inlet could accommodate a 600-foot-by-400-foot (183 metres by 122 metres) net. A gradual incline to the beach would allow Lolita to be eased out of the water and on a rubber tarp, to which she is accustomed, for medical examinations. Garrett said the adjacent landowner is enthusiastic about having a sanctuary off his shore.

Dr. Phillip Clapham, leader of the cetacean assessment and ecology program at the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Alaska, wonders how well a sea pen could accommodate orcas that swim “vast distances” in the wild.

“Certainly any improvement in the size or the area in which a killer whale is kept can presumably only be good for the mental welfare of the animal,” he said. “Whether this is really enough is another question.”

Orcas are social, family-oriented animals so placing a mammal that has lived alone in an aquarium alone in a sea pen may not be ideal, Clapham notes, and reintroducing them to their family members could be an “interesting experiment.”

There are also concerns that formerly captive animals could introduce disease to wild populations.

Trainers would help Lolita improve her cardiovascular strength, her fishing skills and she would eventually be provided access to her family, said Garrett, adding that vets would thoroughly examine Lolita for pathogens.

Garrett believes a remote site is preferable to urban setting, but Duffus disagrees.

“You want to use pens to really raise public consciousness and maybe to expand the idea of sea pens,” he said. “What we found out in the conservation area is that the public has to be exposed to participate.”

Vancouver, a tourist destination and “nerve centre,” would make a great site, he said. But it’s up to the public to convince aquariums to support sanctuaries.

Several attempts to speak to a representative of the Vancouver Aquarium about the concept were unsuccessful. 

“The aquariums are there because the public accepts them,” Duffus said. “Killer whales and belugas and dolphins are in captivity because the public allows it, so we have to work through to the public and then back to the aquarium.”

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