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Vancouver Aquarium Clams Up Over Pipelines And Tankers

04/21/2015 05:22 EDT | Updated 06/21/2015 05:59 EDT
Robert Giroux via Getty Images
VANCOUVER, CANADA - FEBRUARY 18: The Orca statue, 'Chief of the Undersea World', designed by Bill Reid, stands in front of the Vancouver aquarium February 18, 2009 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Vancouver is the host city for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games being held February 12-28, 2010. (Photo by Robert Giroux/Getty Images)

This month's bunker fuel spill in Vancouver's English Bay was a stark reminder of just what is at stake as resource industries lay claim to more and more of our coastline. The accident has already re-energized the debate over the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion and the increased tanker traffic that will accompany it. But, notably absent from this debate is the one group most Vancouverites look to on issues affecting our oceans -- the Vancouver Aquarium.

It may come as a surprise that Vancouver Aquarium's official position on Kinder Morgan seems to be that they have no official position on Kinder Morgan. The same goes for Enbridge's Northern Gateway.

And it's not just pipelines and tankers that have the aquarium clamming up. They're also silent about the risks to our coast from mining development, fracking, LNG terminals and coal ports -- virtually all of the industries and megaprojects that threaten the health of our oceans, waterways and wildlife.

The same industries that have poured tens of millions of dollars in donations into the aquarium in the past few years.

Browsing through the aquarium's "Partner's Gallery" reads more like the Koch brothers' investment portfolio than partners of a charity dedicated to protecting our oceans. Among them:

  • Oil giant, Shell. A major player in the tarsands, an expanded Kinder Morgan pipeline would speed the delivery of dirty, climate-changing oil from Alberta to their Puget Sound refinery in Anacortes, Wash.
  • BG Group, another official partner that specializes in deepwater oil production and shale gas recovery (aka fracking). Shell recently purchased BG for $70 billion putting them on course to be the world's largest oil & LNG producer.
  • Shipping company Tee-Kay, which boasts "$12 billion in assets and some of the world's largest fleets" of offshore platforms and oil & LNG tankers.
  • The Port of Metro Vancouver, who stands to benefit from the increased tanker traffic and who has been co-promoting Transmountain with Kinder Morgan.
  • FortisBC, whose Eagle Mountain-Woodfibre Gas Pipeline Project is a critical link for the ridiculously short-sighted Woodfibre LNG plant in Howe Sound, which is still in the early stages of recovery after pollution from the Britannia mine left it largely devoid of life for decades.
  • Goldcorp, the Canadian mining company perhaps better known for repeated accusations of human rights violations at its mines in Central and South America, but whose website say they "share mutual principles in regards to education and sustainable development" with Vancouver Aquarium.
  • The aquarium's "Premier Partner," Vancouver-based mining giant Teck Resources, producer of copper and zinc, along with 26.7 million tons of coal in 2014 that they exported to Asia.

It is difficult to reconcile how a charity "deeply committed to protecting our oceans" can justify accepting millions of dollars from the industries that profit by placing our oceans and ocean wildlife in peril. It's even harder to justify giving these same industries a free ride on the damage -- immediate or potential -- they do to our coastal ecosystem.

It's much easier for the corporations to justify, of course. For less than the cost of a national ad campaign, they get an association with a well-known and largely respected environmental charity -- an industry-friendly one at that -- to help green up their brand image. Sounds a lot like greenwashing doesn't it?

Or, is it simply a coincidence that Teck, the biggest of the aquarium's big donors, made their $12.5-million donation to the aquarium just months before they were forced to publicly admit they had spent 100 years polluting the Columbia River with arsenic, mercury, lead and other metals? Their name now graces the entrance of the aquarium's new $50-million expansion that was unveiled in June 2014.

What are we to think when even an event as catastrophic as Mount Polley wasn't enough to break the aquarium's silence on the environmental risks of mining and other resource development? Their public commentary was limited to a media interview with respected aquarium researcher Dr. Peter Ross who, careful not to point fingers at the industry responsible, told us that it spelled a likely death for returning salmon. Five million cubic metres of arsenic-laden sludge will do that, won't it?

And it's not just industry that seems to leave the aquarium at a loss for words. After receiving $15 million from the Harper government in 2010, the aquarium seems to think any ocean advocacy is too much.

They were strangely absent from the Cohen Commission inquiry into the decline of the Fraser sockeye. They skipped the National Energy Board hearings on the Kinder Morgan expansion (aquarium employees that applied to comment, all made sure to note that they did not speak for Vancouver Aquarium). When the federal government gutted our environmental regulations by removing protections from 99 per cent of our lakes and rivers? Just another day at Vancouver Aquarium, apparently.

In fact, public records show that the aquarium's lobbying of the federal government has been focused on "obtaining financial support for infrastructure redevelopment." In other words, they haven't been asking for policy changes to better protect our oceans, they've been asking for your tax money to expand their $36 million a year operation.

The aquarium might argue that they're not greenwashing at all, that they can more easily effect change by remaining a neutral third party, to bridge the divide between ecology and industry. If that is the case, there are no visible signs and it clearly isn't working. Regardless, their silence on problems such as this implies that there is no problem.

You cannot position yourself as the premier ocean conservation organization in the province, yet fail to take a public position on the most important issues facing our oceans.

More likely, the aquarium will argue that the money donated by these companies (and governments) helps protect our oceans by providing critical funding for their public education, research and rescue programs.

But ask yourself: what good is an environmental education program that fails to even mention most of the biggest (and avoidable) threats to our ecosystem? There would be far greater benefit to our coastline if the aquarium educated their visitors about the grave risks of tarsands pipelines, tanker traffic and LNG ports, rather than focusing on how acrobatic dolphins can be.

Research is important, yes, but do we really need science to tell us that a major oil spill on our coast would devastate marine life? To be fair, documenting the accumulating impact of human industry on our ecosystem is not without value. But what do you hope to achieve by documenting the harmful effects of pollution, if you're not willing to point a finger at the polluters? Or take steps to prevent it?

And of course, marine mammal rescue is laudable; these animals need help. But by failing to address the human activities that cause rescue to be necessary, you just perpetuate the need for your rescue services. You also ensure an endless supply of marine mammals as marquee attractions.

Conservation isn't about cleaning up the mess industry leaves behind -- it's about preventing the destruction of what little wild we have left.

If the big money they receive from the resource industry impedes the aquarium's ability to speak out against the environmental consequences of those industries' plans, then they are more a part of the problem, than the solution.

The aquarium has spent decades carefully cultivating a public image among locals as a world-renowned conservation organization. Rightly or wrongly, the people of B.C. believe in and trust the Vancouver Aquarium on ocean-related issues. Theirs is a powerful voice.

Let's hope they find it, before it is too late.

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