SHORTAKES: How much does an orca sanctuary cost?

Last week, The Whale Sanctuary Project gave an update on site selection for its proposed facilities. Co-founder Michael Mountain wrote:

In British Columbia, we have researched hundreds of locations that would be ideal for orcas, and we’ve visited dozens of them around Vancouver Island. Most, however, are too far from human civilization – fresh water, power, transport, schools, medical facilities – to be practical. But one fits many of the necessary physical criteria and has better access to civilization is Mound Island.

The San Juan Islands, by comparison, are within easy reach of a major metropolitan area. But most of the sites that would be good for whales are also close to people with homes and businesses nearby. One location that doesn’t have this challenge is Deepwater Bay on Cypress Island.

Nova Scotia is the third region we’ve been exploring. And several small communities have stepped forward not only to offer their help in finding a suitable location, but to engage with us as potential partners in the creation of a beluga sanctuary.

Delving deeper into Deepwater Bay, he continued:

While the sites we explored in B.C. are remote from cities, those in the San Juan Islands are within easy reach of a major metropolitan area. That’s a big plus in terms of having access to power, infrastructure, and all the facilities that staff members would need for their families who are living there year-round.

It also means, of course, that many of the sites we’ve looked at that would be ideal for a sanctuary are also close to people with homes and businesses nearby. And while they love the idea of a sanctuary, many people prefer not to give up any coastal access.

One location that doesn’t have this challenge is Deepwater Bay on Cypress Island, which is sparsely populated and close to the mainland. Deepwater Bay is home to some Department of Natural Resources operations. It was formerly a salmon hatchery that failed two years ago, and the owners must give up possession by 2023, so we’re working to see if we can acquire the bay sooner than that for an orca sanctuary.

The bay has good depth and excellent tidal and current flows, and can be segmented to accommodate the net enclosures. It is also close to the mainland and it continues to be one of our preferred sites.

In a carefully selected choice of words (after all, any statements a nonprofit group makes can have an impact on fundraising), he tells us that the site was “formerly a salmon hatchery that failed two years ago.” The story behind this failure is noteworthy and, although it doesn’t discount The Whale Sanctuary Project’s ability to build a successful facility in this location, it brings up an important question.

In August 2017, a sea pen housing 305,000 Atlantic Salmon collapsed in Deepwater Bay. Approximately 250,000 escaped into the Salish Sea and Pacific. As of January 2018, close to 200,000 remained unaccounted for.

An investigation by the State of Washington showed that insufficient maintenance and cleaning of the pen and its substructures led to the collapse.

So here’s the question – how much does it cost to maintain an orca sanctuary, including net and pen maintenance?

For the proposed Whale Sanctuary Project facility in Deepwater Bay, Mountain uses the phrase “net enclosures,” as in the plural not singular.

In April 2014, as part of my reporting on the California ORCA bill, I attended a screening of the film “Blackfish,” followed by a Q&A with the film’s star, John Hargrove, and the bill’s co-author, Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute.

I’m pretty sure I had the same idea as most people attending – that a sea sanctuary would be just a giant net securing an inlet. That was until Hargrove and Rose pointed out that just like at a park like SeaWorld, there would need to be gated pens within the larger space – pens for quarantine and medical needs, pens to separate incompatible animals, and pens to keep males and females from being in a common area and breeding. It’s also possible that the larger sanctuary could be separated into smaller areas of equal size.

The more pens and nets in a facility, the more the maintenance cost.

The optimal plan for an orca sanctuary-type operation would be to secure all its financing for five years ahead of time. This means initial costs, such as site selection, procurement, licensing, and construction, along with five years of operational costs.

And it’s a good idea to go in with a contingency plan just in case. From a financial standpoint, the biggest problem with the Keiko repatriation had nothing to do with the construction of facilities and transport of the animal. It happened later when the primary source of operational funding disappeared.

When Keiko arrived in Iceland in 1998, the estimated annual operations costs were around $3 million ($4.6 million in 2019 dollars). By 2002, operational costs had dropped to $500,000 per year.

Orca Network, which is hoping to gain possession of the orca Lolita from the Miami Seaquarium and return her to the waters of Washington State, initially budgeted a maximum total cost for everything of $1.5 million. However, this cost was based on the assumption that the whale would be released into the wild within a six month period.

By 2018, Orca Network realized this could be a multi-year endeavor. Initial costs were revised to $3 million for setup and first year operations, with $1.3 million in operating costs for each year following.

The Whale Sanctuary Project estimates a cost of $15-20 million per facility, with a maximum of eight orcas in a facility, and an operational cost of $2 million per year.

Regardless the cost, if funds are not allocated to regular maintenance and cleaning of the pens and the nets, the chances of a negative outcome increase.

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