Whale of a Problem: U.S. Import of Belugas Draws Major League Ire

Some experts say we’re protecting these populations; others insist we’re destroying them.

beluga whales
Beluga whales swimming off the coast of Alaska. (Ho New / Reuters)
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

Aquariums can seem like pretty magical places. But you could also argue that, for the marine life, it’s a little like living in the world depicted in the movie The Truman Show—everything looks really great, but it’s not reality.

That’s why “a proposal to import 18 beluga whales for popular interactive park attractions in the United States is drawing fierce opposition from animal rights advocates and others who object to their removal from the wild,” reports The New York Times.

“The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta has applied for a federal import permit on behalf of a group of marine parks, saying the aquariums need the Arctic whales for captive breeding efforts, research and education. Approval would end an import hiatus of nearly two decades that is rooted in misgivings about removing intelligent and social marine mammals from their native waters and their families.”

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Even marine mammal experts are divided on the captive versus wild question. Many feel “the research and conservation value of a robust captive breeding population in North America far outweighs any harm in taking the whales from the wild.”

But The Times quotes Hal Whitehead, a marine mammal expert at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, saying, “We know that they [belugas] are intensely social mammals with complex and lengthy migrations, and that they use a whole bunch of different habitats in different times of the year, and that they are acoustic communicators . . . There is no way even the best captive situation has even the slightest approximation to that.”

The nonprofit Marine Connection is fairly blunt in their assessment: “Captivity is not about education or conservation, it is about one thing—profit . . . In the wild, dolphins and whales are not subjected to loud music, excited crowds of people, artificial light and air or concrete walls. The facts are plain—most dolphins and whales are not born in captivity, and with breeding rates unable to meet the need to restock facilities, dolphins and whales continue to be captured from the wild.”

The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) is just as adamant, saying, “Confined in an unnatural environment, these wide-ranging, social animals are forced to live a life of severe deprivation, suffering lower life-expectancy and higher infant mortality than in the wild.”

In fact, it’s kind of hard to find many supporters, but the Vancouver Aquarium offers a fairly spirited defense:

“Seeing whales in aquariums has helped change public perception and increased support for conserving wild populations. There is no real substitute for seeing animals first-hand to generate a feeling of interest and connection. For most people, the Vancouver Aquarium and other aquariums are the only place they can see live whales. Education about conservation is vital to the survival of whales in the wild. If all the people that view whales in aquariums went whale watching, this would have a huge impact on various wild whale populations around the world.”

Although Robert Michaud, an expert at the conservation group Gremm, was hired by the Georgia Aquarium to coordinate research into the beluga populations in the Sea of Okhotsk, he sees both sides of the story.

The Times quotes him as saying, “I can make the case that research on these animals in captivity helps animals in the wild . . . [but] you won’t find in me a strong defender of captive animals . . . You are breaking family groups . . . The pool will never be the open ocean.”

Where do you fall on the question of capturing marine mammals for aquariums and sea parks? Tell us in the comments below.

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