SHELBURNE – The possibility of establishing a seaside whale sanctuary in the Shelburne area for beluga whales being retired from entertainment parks is being taken to the next step.
About 70 people attended an information meeting at the Parish of Christ Church Hall on Feb. 9 in Shelburne to hear what Charles Vinick, executive director of The Whale Sanctuary Project, and neuroscientist Dr. Lori Marino, who is president of the non-profit organization, had to say about the proposed project.
The meeting was the last of six held by the Whale Sanctuary Project during February. They are hoping to identify communities in Nova Scotia that may be interested in becoming home to a seaside sanctuary for upwards of eight beluga whales. Meetings were also held in Dartmouth, Liverpool, Port Hawkesbury, Sherbrooke and Sheet Harbour.
The organization is looking for a 40-hectare area (just under half a square km) along the Atlantic shore of Nova Scotia that can become a home to whales who are retired from entertainment facilities or who are injured and need rehabilitation within a netted-off area.
“Most of them have never learned survival skills, so they cannot be released into the open ocean,” said Vinick. “But a seaside sanctuary will give them a chance to thrive in a stimulating natural ecosystem.”
Dr. Marino said whales and dolphins “have a highly complex sense of self” and “suffer greatly spending their lives in concrete tanks and the only way to end their suffering is to relocate them to a permanent seaside sanctuary, where they can receive expert care in a natural environment.”
The project is the first effort of this nature in North America, said Vinick.
“We think this is a project to lead the way and leave a legacy for your children, the community, for the province and an opportunity to lead globally and nationally,” Vinick said.
The project is long term and would create economic benefits including the creation of an education centre, an on-going need to purchase tons of frozen fish to feed the whales, as well as full and part-time jobs to be filled by local residents, said Vinick.
“We will fund this project 100 percent on endowments and donations,” he said, noting they already have some financial backing. The cost of the project will depend on its location. “If it’s an area where we’ve got to create everything. probably $18 to $19 million. In an area like this it’s less but its still multimillion dollars to do what we’re talking about.”
Vinick said the Whale Sanctuary Project is not only committed to raising the capital funds to establish the sanctuary but will also raise the operating capital.
“We have to have an endowment to support that going forward,” he said, and would be part of the fundraising campaign, which can start “once we have a site and a specific site plan, we’ve created with community.”
If a community thinks the project is “potentially a fit you would like to see in your community and only if that’s the case then we should talk,” said Vinick. Coming out of almost all of the other meetings held in Nova Scotia “is a committee of activity. I have to say we have been really impressed with the interest,” he said.
There was also much interest expressed at the meeting in Shelburne to the formation of a committee to further explore the project. A sign-up sheet quickly filled up. Shelburne Mayor Karen Mattatall said the town will take it to the next step of getting a committee going by facilitating a meeting amongst the community to see what interest is out there.
“I think it’s something that would work really well in Shelburne County and I hope people get together on it,” said Round Bay resident John Davis. “I’m prepared to put some effort into it. I hope something happens. It’s a great idea. What happens to those animals is horrible and if we can help get them closer to the wild, I think we should try.”
Vinick said it’s important for the communities who are interested, that “there is some momentum coming out of a meeting like this. If you don’t embrace it, it won’t happen… this a project not about business. It needs to be embraced by the environment and the community.”
Vinick said they are “wanting to do this as rapidly as judicious to do so” and are hoping to be back in the province by April or May to follow up with interested communities and get out on the water to review potential sites.
“The ability to finish the sanctuary by end of 2020 may not be realistic but the ability to get far enough along that you can accept your first resident by then may be.”
In some areas that have been eyed as locations, the question of fishing and the impact on the industry has come up. That didn’t happen at the meeting in Shelburne. The intent of the meeting was, more or less, for the group to describe what it wanted to do. More in-depth discussions and identifying potential sites would be up to communities to talk about as a next step if the idea of a whale sanctuary was being pursued.
The Whale Sanctuary Project is also looking at the west coast in Washington State and British Columbia to establish a sanctuary for Orca whales.