A secret location along the southwest coast of Nova Scotia has been shortlisted as a potential site for the world’s first retirement home for captive-bred whales and dolphins.
The pioneering effort began two years ago when the US-based Whale Sanctuary Project announced it was examining sites across North America to establish a large beachfront enclosure.
“The writing is on the wall for all those (marine parks and aquariums) that are home to cetaceans – dolphins, whales and porpoises,” says Lori Marino, president of the nonprofit group. “They’re really going to have to phase out this practice if they want to win public favor.”
Marino confirmed this week that the list of potential sites has been narrowed down to two locations: Nova Scotia and Washington State – with a few sites in British Columbia as backup options. Talks are underway with government officials, local residents, fishers and First Nations, but the group has yet to submit a formal proposal to Canadian or US officials.
“This is something we would be open to working with them on if they decide to pursue this world-class project here in Nova Scotia,” provincial government spokeswoman Chrissy Matheson said in an email. “It would be a fantastic opportunity for Nova Scotia.
The group plans to make a decision before the end of the year, and the goal is to have a 28-hectare sanctuary – about the size of 40 football fields – operational by 2020. Around $2 million has been collected for the 20 million dollars. project. A fundraising campaign should begin soon.
“There’s so much loathing to keep these animals in tanks and ask them to play for their supper,” said Marino, a neuroscientist and animal behavior expert who has studied marine mammals for 25 years.
“There are animals currently living in concrete tanks that could live another 20 or 30 years. The idea that they live in these conditions is truly inhumane and intolerable. This is the solution.
Public attitudes toward keeping highly intelligent and socially complex animals in captivity changed as researchers learned more about their lives.
“There’s so much scientific evidence that their welfare was very poor,” Marino said, adding that the 2013 documentary “Blackfish” helped expose the dark side of the marine mammal entertainment industry by focusing about Tilikum, an orca implicated in the deaths of three people. .
According to the Change For Animals Foundation, there are at least 2,300 cetaceans in captivity worldwide, including around 2,000 dolphins, 200 beluga whales and 53 orcas, otherwise known as killer whales.
But these numbers are expected to drop in the coming years, especially in North America.
In January, the Vancouver Aquarium announced it would no longer keep whales and dolphins in captivity, saying heated public debate over the issue was hampering its conservation work.
Last month, hundreds of protesters gathered outside Marineland Adventure Park in Niagara Falls, Ont., where dozens of beluga whales and dolphins are part of the show. The park is home to Canada’s only captive killer whale, Kiska.
In 2015, Ontario became the first province to ban the buying, selling and breeding of killer whales. The following year, industry leader Seaworld Parks and Entertainment announced that it would stop breeding orcas in captivity. And in Ottawa, a bill introduced in the Senate would prohibit whales and dolphins from being kept in captivity.
However, captive-bred whales and dolphins cannot be returned to the wild because they lack the necessary survival skills.
Renowned marine biologist Hal Whitehead, a professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, is one of many international advisors to the Whale Sanctuary Project.
“As we learn more about (whales and dolphins), it’s clear that life in the tank is a far cry from how they would normally live in the wild,” Whitehead said, adding that there will be challenges when establishing a waterfront enclosure. . “It’s not an ideal life for any of these animals, but it’s much better than where they are now.”
Critics said the sanctuary plan was flawed because it would be difficult to contain orcas that could weigh up to 5,400 kilograms. Additionally, they say that captive-bred marine mammals can carry pathogens that can infect wild populations.
Whitehead said those behind the project planned to erect two nets to keep the whales inside, and he stressed that monitoring by veterinarians would reduce the risk of disease.
“I was impressed with the care and diligence with which the band approached this issue,” he said in an interview. “They really thought about the issues they face…to minimize the risk.”
Marino says her group’s panel of advisors have extensive net-keeping experience, and she stressed that the locations selected will be protected from the open ocean.
“The idea of escape is very, very far off,” she said.