Anti-captivity activists got some good news this month when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that it would be denying the Georgia Aquarium’s application for a permit to import 18 beluga whales from Russia for public display.
The application to import these whales marked the first request in 20 years from a facility in the U.S. to import wild caught marine mammals for public display. The belugas in question were captured in 2006 and 2011 and are currently being held at the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station on Russia’s Black Sea Coast.
Had the permit been approved, they would have been brought here and split up between the Georgia Aquarium and its partner facilities under breeding loan agreements, including SeaWorld parks in Florida, Texas and California, along with the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.
The agency based its decision on the requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). While the MMPA allows some exceptions for marine mammals to be captured and imported for public display, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) concluded that the Georgia Aquarium did not meet the required criteria and cited three major concerns, including:
- The agency’s inability to determine whether or not importing them, alone or combined with other activities, would impact the population of Sakhalin-Amur whales.
- The determination that the request would likely result in the taking of marine mammals beyond those authorized by the permit.
- The conclusion that five of the belugas proposed for import, estimated to be 1.5 years old at the time of capture, were still nursing and not yet independent.
The Georgia Aquarium issued a statement calling the news “deeply disappointing” and stated that the rejection “places the long-term global sustainability of an entire species in limbo. The animals in question would help to ensure the sustainability of beluga whales in human care in the U.S. for the purposes of education, research, and conservation.”
Contrary to what the aquarium claims, importing these belugas would do nothing to support their conservation in the wild. Instead it would actually pose a bigger threat to them by increasing the demand for live-captured marine mammals.
Even NOAA’s letter denying the permit acknowledged that both past and present capture operations have likely “contributed to an adverse impact on this population,” which has obviously not helped them in any way.
The argument that forcing marine mammals to undergo the stress of being captured, separated from their family members and transported long distances, and subjecting them to the stress of life in captivity and questionable breeding programs in order to conserve them is holding less and less water. On the other hand, the case against their continued commercial exploitation gains traction as public awareness about the problems with this industry grows.
However, the fate of these belugas is still unclear. Georgia Aquarium could appeal the decision, but now some are concerned that if it doesn’t, the belugas may be auctioned off to countries without marine mammal protections in place. Their advocates are now calling for Russia to allow a team of scientists to evaluate their health and rehabilitate them for release into the wild.
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