Call it the Free Willy factor.
Citing hardening public attitudes, the federal government has asked one of the country's top whale researchers to find out whether it should be regulating the capture and keeping of marine mammals.
As it stands, there are almost no regulations governing how whales, dolphins, seals and other marine mammals are caught and kept for research or education. The last review, conducted six years ago, urged the government to enforce some standards. Ottawa responded by banning the capture of beluga whales for export, but went no further.
Since then, says Jacques Robichaud, director-general of research management for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, "the views of the public have varied and it's important to keep up to date."
"You're familiar with Free Willy," he says, referring to Keiko, the killer whale star of three popular films. After a massive public fundraising campaign, Keiko was recently flown to a holding pen in Iceland, and is awaiting release into the open sea.
The depth of Canadians' concern for captive marine mammals in general is unclear, however, and no whales have been captured in Canadian waters since 1992. But there may be another reasons for the review -- a request last year from Marineland of Niagara Falls for a permit to capture a beluga whale for its theme park.
Instead of granting the permit to Marineland, which has been widely criticized by humane societies and other animal-welfare groups for the way it treats its killer whales, dolphins and sea lions, Ottawa asked Jon Lien, an animal behaviour specialist and head of the Whale Research Group at Memorial University in Newfoundland, to review public and scientific opinion.
Lien, who was given a three-month deadline to report, says he expects emotions to play a major role in the presentations scheduled over the next few weeks.
On the one hand are groups such as Cetacean Society International, which claims "it is no longer justifiable for cetaceans to be captured or maintained in captivity for purposes of exhibition, research or education." On the other are scientists who insist their research on captive animals is invaluable.
"This debate is a little like abortion. I don't expect most of the people to agree at all," Lien says.
Also favoring the status quo will be aquariums such as Vancouver's newly renamed Marine Science Centre. Its director, John Nightingale, dismisses activists' claims that little can be learned about a wild animal by studying it in a tank.
For example, he says, the only way to tell how much food energy a killer whale requires is to measure what a captive whale eats. The aquarium is also studying whether noise from arctic icebreakers will affect belugas, a project that requires hearing tests on captive whales.
Though the aquarium hasn't decided exactly what it will tell Lien when he comes to Vancouver next month, Nightingale will likely present a variation on the theme that viewing captive whales can lead to enhanced public understanding of the need for sound conservation practices.
"Seeing a marine mammal, seeing the real thing, is one of the best ways to help get people thinking about the issues," he says.
Most aquariums belong to associations that apply strict capture and care standards to ensure their animals are not harmed. Government regulations, says Nightingale, would be an unnecessary extra layer of bureaucracy.
Critics argue that public education can be better served through whale-watching. But the 50,000 people who went whale-watching in B.C. last year suggest too many whale-watching boats are chasing too few whales in another industry without regulations. By comparison, 900,000 people visited the Vancouver Aquarium last year.
Lien is scheduled to wrap up consultations with scientists, industry and other groups by the end of February. His deadline for a set of recommendations is March 31. Robichaud says he expects the government to respond with any policy changes by the end of the year.
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