It’s Official: U.S. Can’t Import Wild-Caught Belugas From Russia
Animal advocates are celebrating a major win for whales. The U.S. has taken action to ensure wild-caught belugas aren’t imported into the U.S. and doomed to life in tank.
The fate of the belugas in question, who live in Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk, stirred serious controversy back in 2012 when the Georgia Aquarium filed a permit seeking to bring 18 of them here for public display .
Had the Georgia Aquarium been successful, they would have been imported and split up between the Georgia Aquarium, and SeaWorld parks in Florida, Texas and California, along with the Mystic Aquarium and the Shedd Aquarium under breeding and loan agreements. The aquarium would also have marked the first time in 20 years that the U.S. allowed anyone to bring in wild caught cetaceans here specifically for public display .
Fortunately, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) denied the permit request for multiple reasons, and despite repeated attempts to challenge the decision over the past few years, the Georgia Aquarium has remained unsuccessful. This past June, it finally announced it would be giving up.
While the battle to bring these belugas here played out in court, animal advocacy and conservation organizations began working on another approach to ensure none are ever brought here again for public display.
In 2014, the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), Cetacean Society International and the Earth Island Institute filed a petition asking the NMFS to designate these belugas as “depleted” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and they just won a historic victory.
While belugas as a whole aren’t endangered, the Sakhalin Bay-Amur River population in the Sea of Okhotsk has become one of the most exploited on earth. They sadly, among other problems, continue to face the threat of live captures for public display at facilities around the world.
Now, however, the U.S. won’t be complicit in causing them any further harm.
This week the agency finalized the designation, which now makes it illegal for anyone to import belugas into the U.S. from this population. It should also lead to an increase in research and international conservation efforts that will protect them in the wild, which will also hopefully keep more from being captured and exported to other countries.
According to the groups, this marks the first time that the agency has exercised its authority under the MMPA to help protect a whale population who lives entirely in foreign waters by designating it as depleted.
“This was the only right decision,” said Dr. Naomi Rose, AWI marine mammal scientist. “Although the belugas are in Russian waters, what we do here in the United States sets an example for authorities responsible for marine mammal protection everywhere. This final decision puts the United States solidly on the high ground in future collaborative efforts to provide additional protections for these beleaguered whales, which are still subject to capture for the display industry, especially in Russia and China.”
Unfortunately, with a low success rate for breeding and a captive population that won’t sustain itself without new babies, aquariums are going to have to look to the wild to keep their exhibits open. Hopefully this change will help raise awareness about the behind-the-scenes cruelty involved in wild-captures, and how harmful keeping these social and intelligent animals is to them.
“CSI is grateful to NMFS for providing this protection for these increasingly targeted belugas,” said William Rossiter, CSI executive director for advocacy, science and grants. “Russian capture quotas remain obscene despite the science backing NMFS’s decision, but now none will come here. Everyone that buys a ticket to see a beluga in a tank should know that every capture is likely to leave behind injured and dead belugas. These belugas define what exploitation for entertainment is all about.”
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