Animal advocates won a victory this month in the ongoing fight to stop the Georgia Aquarium from importing 18 wild-caught belugas from Russia when a federal court ruled to allow them to intervene in an upcoming court battle.
The controversy surrounding the import began in 2012, when the Georgia Aquarium tried to get a permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to import the belugas, who were captured in Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk between 2006 and 2011. If the permit had been approved, the belugas would have been brought here and split up between the Georgia Aquarium and its partner facilities under breeding loan agreements, including SeaWorld parks and Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium.
It would also have marked the first time in 20 years that the U.S. allowed anyone to bring in wild caught cetaceans specifically for public display.
Thankfully, the NMFS denied the aquarium’s application last summer, after concluding that it hadn’t met the criteria for import under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The agency cited concerns about the impact it would have on wild populations, the demand it would create for further captures and imports and that at least five of the belugas shouldn’t be moved because they were still young enough to be dependent on their mothers.
Unfortunately for the belugas, the Georgia Aquarium couldn’t just accept no for an answer and has continued to fight the decision, filing a lawsuit challenging it in December.
Even after being told what they want to do would further harm beluga populations and knowing how poorly they do in captivity, the aquarium has continued to make nonsensical claims that its efforts are being made in the name of conservation. For example, it pled in a petition that, “Maintaining belugas in human care in accredited North American facilities is essential to the survival of belugas everywhere.”
Considering the Georgia Aquarium’s partnership with the Utrish Dolphinarium, Ltd., a company that has a questionable record involving live captures of cetaceans, including orcas, and its poor track record – four of its belugas, including a five-day-old calf, have died since 2005 – it’s hard to understand how aquarium officials can make that claim with a straight face.
The good news is that this month a federal court granted a request to intervene on behalf of the belugas in the upcoming court battle that was filed by the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), Cetacean Society International and the Earth Island Institute.
“We are pleased that the court is permitting us to defend the agency’s decision to deny the permit application, which was based on a rigorous scientific analysis,” said Susan Millward, executive director of AWI, in a statement. “The court must now uphold the agency’s decision, which helps protect this stock from further depletion by cutting off the US market for wild beluga whale imports.”
Animal advocates continue to argue that subjecting them to the stress and trauma of captures and separation from their families before transporting them dangerously long distances and confining them to tanks for life won’t do anything for the ones who were taken and it certainly won’t help the future survival of the ones left in the wild.
Because there are so few of the Bay-Amur River belugas left in the wild as a result of over hunting and captures for captivity, the groups are also petitioning to have them designated as depleted under the MMPA, which they hope will get them greater protection and encourage international conservation efforts.
“The US public display facilities involved with this import request claim that they are committed to the conservation of cetaceans, but in this case they chose to deal with Russian entities that have captured hundreds of wild beluga whales,” said Mark. J. Palmer, associate director of the International Marine Mammal Project of Earth Island Institute. “Sadly, I believe that these facilities are likely to submit future requests to import additional wild-caught cetaceans, unless a clear message is sent that sourcing cetaceans from the wild does not contribute to their conservation.”
Please sign and share the petition asking the Georgia Aquarium to abandon this plan and stop its efforts to get the ruling against it overturned.
Photo credit: Thinkstock