HALIFAX—A plan in Nova Scotia to build North America’s first coastal refuge for whales formerly kept in marine parks has come under fire from Marineland Canada.
The marine park in Niagara Falls, Ont. – the only venue in Canada that has captive whales – released a study recently alleging the proposed site for the Whale Sanctuary Project is too polluted.
Citing provincial studies, Marineland said the site in a bay near Port Hilford, N.S., has been contaminated by two toxic tailings dumps left behind by gold mines that operated between 1860 and 1939 in the historic Wine Harbour Gold District.
“Huge volumes of arsenic and mercury were dumped into open mine tailings for decades throughout the district…(and) the safety and stability of the two tailings dumps sites are not known, but it is believed they do not meet any modern environmental standard,” the study says.
“Extensive, independent scientific studies in and around the proposed site…demonstrate dangerous toxic levels of arsenic and mercury in the area of the proposed sanctuary…on land and in bivalve shellfish in the water.”
Charles Vinick, executive director of the non-profit sanctuary project, challenged the allegations, saying his group is aware of the mines and is studying the water and the sediment in the bay.
“In our studies to date, we’ve found very little levels of arsenic,” he said in an interview from California. He confirmed some arsenic was found in a nearby freshwater pond, but not in the saltwater bay where the whales would live.
“If we find that there are toxic levels of any chemical – arsenic and mercury included – then we would have to do mitigation or not proceed,” he said. “We wouldn’t be able to get a permit for this site if it cannot be demonstrated that it’s safe for the animals to be there.”
Marineland’s study also points to orders from the federal Fisheries Department that have for years closed the area to fishing for shellfish, including oysters, clams, mussels. An order from 2019 says mollusks in the area contain toxins and are not safe for consumption.
“Opposition by the public to this site appears to be low because the site is otherwise useless because of its polluted state and the unremediated toxic tailing dump site on or adjacent to the site,” says the study, which lists Marineland of Canada Inc. as the author.
“The failure by the (Whale Sanctuary Project) to disclose obvious, serious and dangerous levels of contamination and pollution at the proposed site is alarming and misleading to the public, media and government.”
Vinick said it has disclosed everything it has found to federal and provincial authorities. As for the fishing ban, which doesn’t apply to lobsters, Vinick said it was based on data the government collected in 2012. That’s why the Whale Sanctuary project is conducting its own analysis, the results of which will be turned over to the federal and provincial governments as they decide on the group’s permit applications.
The Fisheries Department did not respond to a request for more information about its prohibition orders.
On Dec. 13, Marineland said it had received a request from the Whale Sanctuary Project for the park’s lone killer whale, Kiska, and up to eight beluga whales to live at the refuge. The whale sanctuary is slated to open in early 2023, but Vinick admitted that deadline will be tough to meet.
Meanwhile, Marineland was recently charged with allegedly using dolphins and whales for entertainment purposes, which is a crime under federal anti-captivity legislation adopted in 2019. Marineland of Canada Inc. has denied the allegations, saying its dolphins and whales are part of an educational presentation designed by experts.
Vinick said the report on the refuge project in Nova Scotia was released to provide a distraction for Marineland.
In October, the Whale Sanctuary Project officially opened its visitor and operations centre in Sherbrooke, N.S., marking the first time the U.S.-based conservation group has moved from the planning phase to actually building something.
The proposed 40-hectare sanctuary – to be enclosed by large underwater nets – is expected to be as large as 50 Canadian football fields and about 300 times larger than the biggest tank in any marine park. The enclosure will be designed to accommodate up to eight beluga whales, which can’t be returned to the open ocean because of their lack of survival skills.
A capital campaign has been started to raise $20 million for the project, which also calls for the construction of a veterinary clinic and interpretation centre near the refuge. Another $2 million would be needed annually for operations. Vinick said fundraising has fallen behind because of the pandemic.
© 2021 The Canadian Press