Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Two unreleasable dolphins were given to Vancouver by Japanese government

Two Pacific white-side dolphins the Japanese government deemed "not releasable" to the wild arrived at the Vancouver Aquarium Sunday morning after an eight-hour flight from Japan.
The two, badly injured in fishing net mishaps at the time of their capture, are now healthy and will join the aquarium's resident duo, an 18-year-old male named Spinnaker and his 27-year-old mate, Laverne.

While aquarium officials expect the dolphins will be a popular display for visitors, not everyone is thrilled with the latest acquisition.

Doug Imbeau of the environmental group, Coalition for No Whales in Captivity, said his group has been fighting for 15 years to stop more whales and dolphins from coming to the aquarium.
Imbeau said the coalition is particularly opposed to the purchase of dolphins from Japan, a country, he said, that regularly rounds up wild dolphins to sell to aquariums and to slaughter for food.

Clint Wright, the Vancouver Aquarium's vice-president of animal care, said the facility has been actively looking to boost its population of white-sided dolphins in its West Coast exhibit for years in an effort to achieve a "normal-sized unit" for dolphins in the wild of between four and six animals.
But the search has been limited by the terms of an agreement with the Vancouver park board that restricts the aquarium from buying or acquiring any dolphin captured from the wild in the last nine years.

Dolphins born in captivity are also hard to find, as attempts to breed the animals have been met with limited success, said Wright.

In all, he said, "it's been a very difficult search."

The acquisition of the two new dolphins make for an important exception, however. Under the terms of the agreement with the park board, the aquarium is able to buy rehabilitated dolphins with injuries that prevent them from surviving in the wild, no matter when they were captured.

According to Wright, the two new dolphins fit that criteria. Helen, a 17-year-old female, had to have portions of her pectoral (front) flippers amputated when she was first brought in for rehabilitation at Japan's Enoshima Aquarium in 1996, he said. The second dolphin, an as-yet-unnamed female who is about 11 years old, came to the Japanese aquarium in 2003 suffering from starvation brought on by fishing-net injuries.

Wright wouldn't say how much the aquarium paid for the dolphin pair, citing a confidentiality agreement with the Enoshima Aquarium. However, he did say that it cost the aquarium more than $200,000 to buy and transport the dolphins.

He said they appear to have withstood the trip well. "They are already eating, so that's a good sign."

Accompanied by Wright and aquarium veterinarian David Huff, the two dolphins came to Vancouver in a climate-controlled aircraft. The animals made the trip suspended in slings inside a transport tank partially filled with water.

The dolphins are now in a holding pool. They are expected to join Laverne and Spinnaker some time early this week in the main pool.

Wright said, along with taking part in public shows, the new arrivals will be used in marine research. Specifically, he said, the aquarium is hoping to study ways of teaching dolphins, using their own bio-sonar abilities, to detect fishing nets in the water and, therefore, avoid getting tangled up in them. The study will focus on how dolphins measure sound.

Encounters with fishing nets kill and maim thousands of dolphins and whales every year. The nets are difficult for the dolphins to see underwater, and, so far, man-made sonar technologies have failed to reliably prevent dolphin-net entanglements, Wright said.

The aquarium will also study dolphin metabolism in conjuction with a multi-year research program that began in Japan, with Helen as its main subject.

Though white-sided dolphins are a common species along the Pacific Coast, little is known about them and research is vital to conservation efforts, Wright said.

Meanwhile, Imbeau of the Coalition for No Whales in Captivity, said his group is planning to make a presentation to the Vancouver park board tonight asking that citizens be allowed to vote in a referendum on whether they want the aquarium to continue keeping whales and dolphins in captivity.

Failing that, "protesting is something that we will consider," he said.

Quick "Facts about Dolphins"