The project to build North America’s first wilderness refuge for whales withdrawn from marine parks took a big step forward on Friday in a remote corner of northeastern Nova Scotia.
The Whale Sanctuary Project has officially opened its visitor and operations center in Sherbrooke, Nova Scotia, marking the first time that an American conservation group has moved from the planning phase to building something.
“This is an important step,” Charles Vinick, executive director of the project, said in an interview this week. “It really shows people that we are here, and we will cut the ribbon to show that this is actually our home here in Nova Scotia.”
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The new center was built in a renovated century-old house on Main Street in Sherbrooke, a former gold mining and forestry town about 200 kilometers northeast of Halifax.
“This is a good opportunity for a new business to establish itself in the municipality,” said Greg Wier, the warden of the rural municipality which includes Sherbrooke. “For the most part, everyone is happy that this is happening… I don’t think there is any opposition.”
Wier said the public wants to see the whales in their natural environment rather than in captivity.
“There is a lot of public outcry over these whales being held in small enclosures,” he said in an interview this week.
The proposed 40-hectare coastal sanctuary – which will be surrounded by large underwater nets – is slated to be built next year south of Port Hilford, Nova Scotia, a 20-minute drive southeast of Sherbrooke. It will be as large as 50 Canadian football fields and about 300 times the size of the largest reservoir in any marine park.
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The sanctuary could welcome its first whales in early 2023, provided the project obtains the required federal and provincial permits, Vinick said. It is designed to accommodate up to eight beluga whales, which it says cannot be returned to the high seas due to their lack of survival skills.
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Despite public support, questions remain about the project, particularly with regard to bad weather, the accumulation of whale waste and the possibilities of escape.
Vinick said the site is well protected from prevailing winds, a claim based in part on having witnessed two tropical storms arriving in the past two years. Regarding the accumulation of whale droppings, he said a hydrodynamic study has shown that the bay is regularly swept by currents and tides.
He also ruled out the possibility that imported whales could transmit disease to the resident whale population.
“The data suggests that these risks are extremely low,” Vinnick said. “In general, pathogens are only transmitted by physical contact, not by water. The fact that migrating whales generally stay offshore means there will be limited interaction, he added.
Meanwhile, the non-profit group has launched a campaign to raise up to $ 20 million for the project, which also includes building a veterinary clinic and interpretation center near the shelter. Another $ 2 million would be needed each year for operations.
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“We have a number of seven-figure donors who are very committed to this, and we are in discussions with others,” said Vinick, who has worked for 25 years with famous underwater filmmaker Jacques Cousteau and his son Jean-Michel. The group is not asking for public funds.
About 200 belugas and 50 killer whales are kept in marine parks and aquariums around the world, although precise figures have been difficult to get since Chinese entrepreneurs started building marine parks and importing whales from Russia. . Marineland Park in Niagara Falls, Ontario has about 40 belugas and Canada’s only captive killer whale, Kiska.
Public attitudes towards keeping these highly intelligent and socially complex animals in captivity have changed as researchers have learned more about their lives.
And the 2013 documentary “Blackfish” helped expose the darker side of the marine mammal entertainment industry by focusing on Tilikum, an orca involved in the deaths of three people. Ontario became the first province to ban the buying, selling and breeding of killer whales in 2015.
The Vancouver Aquarium no longer keeps whales or dolphins in captivity. And in 2019, the Canadian government passed a law prohibiting whales, dolphins and porpoises from being bred or kept in captivity, although the law does not apply to animals already living in Marineland.
The world’s first whale sanctuary opened in South Iceland in 2019. The Sea Life Trust has two Chinese belugas: Little Gray and Little White.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on October 29, 2021.
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