Editor’s Note — The SeaWorld/captivity controversy is painting marine life parks in a new light. What was once considered a fun, educational place to take your family is now being viewed by many as a place that’s exploiting marine life simply for profit. But SeaWorld is first and foremost a theme park and entertainment company and that’s not true of all marine life parks. In fact, many aquariums are actually nonprofits. With that in mind, MST is going to take a look at some aquariums and marine life parks around the world to find out what kinds of places are out there and if they strive to promote education and conservation of the marine world.
Disclaimer: We at Marine Science Today cannot hope to offer every piece of information that makes an aquarium “good” or “bad,” and we hope to stay away from those kinds of clear cut answers, except when completely unavoidable. We hope that this article series will offer a set of basic criteria to examine when choosing to visit or support your local aquariums. The most fundamental question we hope all of our readers will ask before supporting any organization is, “Does this organization support marine life, conservation, and education in action as well as in name?”
The Vancouver Aquarium is nestled in the forest of Vancouver’s Stanley Park, an oasis of green (and marine life!) in British Columbia’s largest city. The Aquarium was Canada’s first public aquarium upon its founding in 1956. The Vancouver Aquarium is a nonprofit organization, accredited by the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, the American Zoos & Aquariums Association (AZA), and the Canadian association of Zoos and Aquariums. It hosts over 1,000,000 visitors each year.
Marine Science Today sat down with Dolf DeJong, Vice President of Conservation and Education, to discuss the Aquarium’s community engagement, educational programs, and mission of “effecting the conservation of aquatic life.”
Educational programs: What kind of educational programs does the aquarium offer? Is there any emphasis on their local environments?
The Vancouver Aquarium has a wealth of education-oriented programs. According to their annual report, in 2013, 22,000 students participated in staff and volunteer-led education programs on site, with another 40,000 students participating in self-guided tours. “We are really trying to immerse kids in the experience of the ocean.”
Kids visiting the aquarium certainly have plenty of opportunities to become immersed in the ocean, between creature encounters, live shows, feature videos, and more. The Aquarium’s Wet Lab allows students to get up close and personal with marine life, encouraging inquiry-based education. Birthday parties, behind the scenes tours, and even sleepovers(!) are just a few of the extra special additional ways kids can connect with the aquarium. DeJong notes that, “When you are trying to win over hearts and minds, you need to start with the heart.”
The Aquarium also reaches out to students and communities far from Vancouver with its AquaVan. Traveling as far as Alberta and the Northwest Territories, the AquaVan brings the magic of the ocean directly to schools and communities that can’t make it to Stanley Park.
The Vancouver Aquarium also promotes its sustainable seafood education program, Ocean Wise™. During MST’s visit to Vancouver, we spotted several restaurants with Ocean Wise menu logos, often for almost the restaurant’s entire menu or just a particular item. (We happened to select sushi that was Ocean Wise-approved one day for lunch).
DeJong noted that Ocean Wise is structured so that all kinds of restaurants (and consumers) can make smart choices. “Not everyone can switch their menu over in one day.” The program marks foods “Ocean Wise” if they meet the following criteria (from the Ocean Wise website):
- Abundant and resilient to fishing pressures.
- Well managed with a comprehensive management plan based on current research.
- Harvested in a method that ensures limited bycatch on non-target and endangered species.
- Harvested in ways that limit damage to marine or aquatic habitats and negative interactions with other species.
Ocean Wise partners are all over Canada (you can see a full map here), and the program even supports staff in Toronto, always seeking new supporters of sustainable seafood across the country. On the go? Of course, there’s even an app for finding your local, sustainable seafood dishes.
Conservation/Research programs: Does the aquarium have any? Is there any local emphasis?
Research programs at the Vancouver Aquarium are numerous. Notable efforts include:
- Cetacean Research: This includes the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network, in collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The Vancouver Aquarium has been conducting cetacean research since 1956.
- Howe Sound Research and Conservation Group: This donor-supported group is the only continuous research program in the Strait of George region. This team conducts natural history studies, does baseline documentary work, and monitors depleted groundfish stocks.
- Ocean Pollution Research Program with Dr. Peter S. Ross: A new research initiative designed to measure the impacts of ocean pollutants.
- Fish research team: this team works on breeding efforts of local species such as rockfish to help relieve pressure from wild fish stocks.
One of their signature conservation programs is the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, presented by Loblaw Companies Limited and conducted in collaboration with WWF. They have just expanded to coordinating cleanups year round. Last year just over 60,000 people participated in a Shoreline Cleanup activity, removing primarily recreational and restaurant waste from the BC Coastline.
DeJong noted that the Aquarium is currently trying to shift its identity from “just an aquarium” to a “conservation organization with an aquarium.”
Rescue/Rehabilitation: Does the aquarium have any rehabilitation services for animals?
The Vancouver Aquarium hosts a Marine Mammal Rescue Centre. It is a hospital for sick, injured, or orphaned marine mammals. The Rescue Centre treats over 100 marine mammals annually and rehabilitates them for release back into their natural habitat.
DeJong went into particular detail with Marine Science Today about a recently rescued harbour porpoise, Levi. The aquarium credits years of research on rehabilitation with their non-releasable harbour porposies, Jack and Daisy, with the success of Levi’s release into the wild last year. You can read more of Levi’s story on the Aquarium website.
Quality of exhibits: Are the animals healthy? Do they seem to have adequate space and clean exhibits? Does the aquarium have marine mammals?
The Vancouver Aquarium has ten major exhibits, though it feels like more as you walk through the spaces. Guests often gravitate towards the beluga whales and Pacific white-sided dolphins, particularly since they can be viewed outside, but there are many highlights indoors as well. The exhibit highlighting different parts of the British Columbia coast, Treasures of the B.C. Coast, should not be missed.
The Vancouver Aquarium was the first aquarium in the world to make a commitment to no longer capture cetaceans from the wild in 1996. Since then, the aquarium has only kept animals that were deemed non-releasable by the relevant government authority, that were born in human care, or that were at the Aquarium prior to 1996. Animals can be deemed non-releasable because they sustained injuries that would put them at a disadvantage in the wild (as with the aquarium’s Pacific white-sided dolphins) or because they lack the life skills to survive on their own following a stranding at a very young age (as with the aquarium’s harbor porpoises).
Financials: Is the aquarium for-profit? What does it cost to visit?
The Vancouver Aquarium is a nonprofit organization funded through primarily by admission fees and private contributions. During winter months, a visit costs $29.00 for adults, $20.00 for students, and $15 for children (4-12), with discounts for seniors (65+) and active military members. Summer rates vary slightly. The aquarium offers discounts to those visiting who use public transit and display a valid transit pass.
Community Engagement: Does the organization make access to its facilities & programs available to its entire local community? Do they offer any special programs for underrepresented or underprivileged groups?
The Vancouver Aquarium makes annual passes available for check out at the Vancouver Library so that any resident can visit the aquarium. They also make an effort to make their programs, like the AquaVan, available to schools with less financial means. DeJong noted the important of ensuring accessibility for all, “which can be both physical and fiscal.”
“We see ourselves as a community organization. We want people to connect with the local water body and connect with what they can do to help it.”
Additionally, the Vancouver Aquarium makes a concerted effort to provide accessibility services to enable as many visitors as possible to visit and enjoy the Aquarium. An overview of these services can be found here.
- The aquarium is a beautiful Vancouver attraction that has a great emphasis on local marine life.
- While some folks may feel uncomfortable with cetaceans in captivity, the Aquarium’s almost twenty-year-old no-capture rule should provide some reassurance, along with stories like that of the harbour porpoise, Levi.
- Don’t miss the Treasures of the B.C. Coast exhibit. It’s not the most glamorous, but it has a stupendous emphasis on local marine life.
- The Ocean Wise sustainable seafood program will only continue to enhance the Vancouver Aquarium’s conservation-oriented image.
- Living in British Columbia? Join a Shoreline Cleanup project in your area!
Copyright © 2014 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.