Nova Scotia’s retirement home for captive whales faces obstacles, delays: documents

An ambitious plan in Nova Scotia to build North America’s first coastal refuge for captive whales is at least five years behind its original schedule, according to newly released documents.

The project, announced in February 2020, provides for the construction of a 40-hectare underwater enclosure that would provide a natural environment for belugas and killer whales removed from marine parks. It would be as big as 50 football fields and about 300 times larger than the largest captive whale tanks.

Organizers of the US-based Whale Sanctuary Project originally predicted the site on Nova Scotia’s rugged east coast could be ready to receive whales this year.

But the COVID-19 pandemic, regulatory hurdles and environmental concerns have slowed progress on the project, according to documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the provincial Freedom of Information Act.

An internal government submission prepared in May 2021 indicates that once the project has secured a Crown lease for a small inlet and land south of Port Hilford, Nova Scotia, it will take at least another five years before that the site is ready to accept whales. This pushes the start date back to 2027.

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Charles Vinick, executive director of the non-profit organization Whale Sanctuary Project, said the government’s timetable is wrong because it includes the construction of an interpretive centre, which will not take place until after the arrival whales. The band’s own schedule now has a late 2023 start date, although Vinick said 2024 is more likely.

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The pandemic is largely responsible for slowing the project, but Vinick also pointed to a demanding provincial permitting process.

« It’s brand new ground for them and brand new ground for us, » he said in an interview from his home in Santa Barbara, Calif. « We have to focus on moving forward every day. »

As an example, he cited his group’s plan to extract small core samples from submerged soils for testing. A permit application was submitted in April, but it took nearly five months for the Department of Natural Resources to decide that an archaeological assessment was needed before testing could begin.

“These things happen, and I suspect there will be more,” Vinick said. « But whenever there is one, we will do it. »

The documents also point to serious concerns about 20 abandoned mine shafts and contaminated tailings left behind by nearby gold mines that operated between 1862 and 1900.

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The sanctuary project says recent work has identified some wells that remain unfilled on or near the lands the project plans to occupy, and soils across the entire property have been tested. Further testing will determine if any areas require mitigation measures.

“Any mitigation requirements that will be assessed, we will meet them,” Vinick said. « We are not going to do anything to endanger the health of the whales. »

On another front, the documents show that the Nova Scotia Department of Environment was concerned about nearby wetlands, and the federal Department of Fisheries wanted to know what kind of animals would be allowed into the refuge to allow officials prepare for disease mitigation and an application under the Species at Risk Act.

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The group restricts the search for a beluga whale retreat site to two sites off Nova Scotia

As for the 40-hectare enclosure, which will be surrounded by underwater nets, it will be designed to accommodate eight to ten belugas and two to three killer whales in a separate area. Animals will not be returned to the wild due to their lack of survival skills.

The $20 million project, which will rely on private donations for support, also includes the construction of a veterinary clinic, an observation tower and other support buildings. Another $2 million would be needed each year for operations. A reception center was opened last year.

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About 200 belugas and 50 killer whales are kept in marine parks and aquariums around the world. Marineland in Niagara Falls, Ontario has about 35 beluga whales and Canada’s only captive killer whale, Kiska.

“None of this work can happen soon enough for whales languishing in concrete tanks and subjected to intolerable conditions,” the group said in an online post last month.

“Yet it is essential to have everything in place for the health and safety of these same whales when they are introduced to a whole new life. This is also the law.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on October 23, 2022.

&copy 2022 The Canadian Press


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