VANCOUVER — The Vancouver Aquarium has reached a new lease agreement with the Vancouver park board that will allow the aquarium to remain in Stanley Park for the next 35 years.
The agreement confirms a 2018 commitment from Ocean Wise, the aquarium’s parent company, that it will no longer display cetaceans — whales and dolphins — at the facility.
Lasse Gustavsson is CEO and president of Ocean Wise, having stepped into the role in February of this year.
He notes the new lease, which replaces the current lease that was set to expire in 2029, will allow the organization to plan for the future, renew its long-term goal of marine conservation and reset a fraught relationship between the organization and the park board.
“I’ve been an environmentalist for 40 years, I’m not afraid of conflict — but I didn’t come here to make enemies, I came here to make friends,” he said, adding that while the tensions between the aquarium and the park board have been “unfortunate,” he didn’t hit any road blocks when he reached out to the park board to discuss the possibility of a new lease.
“It’s been a relatively, I think, smooth journey. We’ve collaborated really well and I am assuming that’s going to be the way we will work in the future.”
The new lease agreement will be at no cost to Ocean Wise for the first five years. Following that period, the organization will resume paying its annual licensing fee — which is more than $290,000 a year — along with a percentage of sales and food services to the city and park board.
In exchange, Ocean Wise has agreed to drop all legal action against the park board and the city of Vancouver. In May, the aquarium sued both the city and park board over 2017 park board bylaw that banned whales, dolphins and porpoises in captivity.
Ocean Wise argued the bylaw led to an attendance drop at the aquarium and interfered with its “ability to carry out day-to-day administration” of the Marine Science Centre.
“Compared to 2016, attendance at the Marine Science Centre in both 2017 and 2018 has declined by approximately 13 per cent,” the aquarium said in the claim.
“Based on 2016 admission rates, this decline in attendance equates to a loss of approximately $4 million in revenues for each of 2017 and 2018.”
In an interview Monday, Gustavsson reiterated Ocean Wise was ready to move forward with the park board and without cetaceans. He emphasized his mission as a conservationist and shared the aquarium’s five-year vision launching in January 2020, with a renewed focus on conservation, public education, governance and enhancing the visitor experience.
As part of the five-year plan, Ocean Wise is in the early stages of planning a Pacific Northwest exhibit to fill some of the tanks and space left empty by the exit of cetaceans. Another key project will focus on B.C.’s Indigenous culture and relationship with land; talks are already underway with local First Nations to ensure their leadership and involvement in the exhibit.
There is no estimated cost at this time for what those exhibits might cost. Both projects are ones Gustavsson sees as being key to making the Vancouver Aquarium a uniquely B.C. destination for marine education and conservation, as well as fostering the passion needed to push back against climate challenges.
“You can’t drive the deep change necessary without having a big number of people with you,” Gustavsson said.
“With the aquarium, we reach out to a million people here.”
Gustavsson said the aquarium will keep and adapt what they can of the facility’s infrastructure and life-supporting systems but that all other designs for exhibitions will go back to the drawing board as they seek investors and funding.
Helen, a Pacific white-sided dolphin, is the aquarium’s last remaining cetacean. The dolphin was rescued from entanglement in a fishing net off the coast of Japan in 1996. She required an amputation of her pectoral flippers to survive but has been rehabilitated and is deemed non-releasable.
Gustavsson indicated that Ocean Wise is currently searching for a new home for Helen, one where she can socialize with other dolphins. The move would be subject to approval from the federal government following newly introduced legislation that bans the export and captivity of cetaceans.
“You can have a world-class conservation aquarium without whales and dolphins and that’s what we don’t have,” he said. “We have no intention not to follow Canadian law … and it’s not controversial for me.”
Five other cetaceans — two belugas, two harbour porpoises and a false killer whale — have died at the aquarium since 2017.
The Vancouver Aquarium has been in Stanley Park since 1956.