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Vancouver Aquarium and Marineland shipping beluga whales out of the country

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Two major Canadian tourist attractions are sending beluga whales outside the country as a new federal law looms that would ban exports on marine mammals, The Canadian Press has learned.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada said it has approved permits for Marineland to move two belugas from the Niagara Falls, Ont., facility to Oceanografic in Valencia, Spain. The Vancouver Aquarium says it owns the two marine mammals that are being cared for by Marineland, and operates the Spanish park where they're being transferred.

"These two aquarium-born belugas will receive exceptional care at Oceanografic, where they will join a small social grouping of whales already in care there," Vancouver Aquarium said in a statement, adding that the deal would not cost the Spanish facility any money.

Marineland has also applied to move five more belugas to the United States, but neither Fisheries nor Marineland would divulge where in the U.S. they're headed if the permits are approved.

"Our Marine Mammal Welfare Committee, which includes independent, accredited experts, recently recommended that Marineland Canada re-home some of our beluga whales to accommodate belugas we expect to be born in 2019 and 2020," Marineland said in a statement.

"Relocations to the United States are being undertaken to ensure that the best care possible is provided for our beluga whales."

Neither facility would identify which belugas were being moved, nor how long the two facilities had this arrangement.

The moves come as a new bill banning whale and dolphin captivity is nearing law — its third reading in the House of Commons is set for debate next week.

"Our government agrees that the capture of cetaceans for the sole purpose of being kept for public display should be ended," said Jocelyn Lubczuk, a spokeswoman for Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson.

The bill bans imports and exports of the mammals with exceptions only for scientific research or "if it is in the best interest" of the animal, with discretion left up to the minister, thereby clamping down on the marine mammal trade.

It will also change the Criminal Code, creating new animal cruelty offences related to the captivity of cetaceans. It also bans breeding.

The bill includes a grandfather clause for those animals already in facilities in Canada and permits legitimate research, as well as the rescue of animals in distress.

Both Marineland and Vancouver Aquarium said the anti-captivity bill had nothing to do with their decisions to move the whales.

"The decision to move them was made in their best interest, not because of politics," the Vancouver Aquarium said.

The Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation passed a bylaw amendment in 2017 banning cetaceans being brought to or kept in city parks after two beluga whales held at the aquarium died. The aquarium, which is located in Stanley Park, announced last year that it would phase out whale and dolphin display.

There are currently no whales at the Vancouver Aquarium.

"We do not believe that the passage of (the bill) will impact Marineland Canada's ability to do what is right for our whales in the years to come," Marineland said.

Marineland, which has more than 50 belugas, has taken issue with the breeding ban. The facility said in a letter to the fisheries minister that the park would be in contravention of the Criminal Code when the bill comes into force because some belugas are pregnant and set to give birth this summer after the bill becomes law.

"There is no easy or thoroughly effective birth control medication for beluga whales," Marineland wrote in March. "In order to control breeding by Bill S-203, existing social family groups must be separated."

The park wants more time to ensure it is in compliance with the law.

The United States is considering similar legislation and France has banned the captivity of all whales, dolphins and porpoises.

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