In a move that surprised and delighted anti-captivity activists, the U.S. government on Tuesday denied a permit to the Georgia Aquarium, which also included requests from the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and SeaWorld, to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales from Russia.
It was a blow to the captive display industry and, many observers say, emblematic of a turning tide in public and governmental attitudes toward keeping such intelligent, social creatures in tanks for human enjoyment.
“Following a number of public engagement efforts, NOAA Fisheries today announced it is denying the Georgia Aquarium’s request for a permit,” the agency announced in a written statement. It based the move on “the requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).”
Limited importation of some wild-captured marine mammals for public display is permitted under the MMPA. But according to the government, this was the first request for import in more than 20 years.
“The Georgia Aquarium clearly worked hard to follow the required process and submit a thorough application, and we appreciate their patience and cooperation as we carefully considered this case,” the statement from NOAA went on to say. “However, under the strict criteria of the law, we were unable to determine if the import of these belugas, combined with the active capture operation in Russia and other human activities, would have an adverse impact on this stock of wild beluga whales.”
The application to import the whales, which TakePart reported on last October and would have been divided between the Georgia Aquarium, Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, and the three SeaWorld parks in Florida, Texas, and California, ultimately failed to meet “several” MMPA criteria. The government ruled:
- We determined that the import permit will likely have a significant adverse impact on the species or stock.
- We determined that the requested import will likely result in the taking of marine mammals beyond those authorized by the permit.
- We determined that five of the beluga whales proposed for import, estimated to be approximately 1.5 years old at the time of capture, were potentially still nursing and not yet independent.
The public pushback against the import permit has been formidable, with most of the 9,000 opinions submitted during a public comment period last year expressing dissent. “The comments that were most helpful to our decision-making process addressed the specific MMPA and regulatory criteria that we must use to make a decision and discussed why the commenter felt the application did or did not meet them,” the NOAA statement said.
Opponents, who had heard rumors that Georgia Aquarium executives were calling the import permit a done deal, were happily taken aback.
“This is a triumph of science over rhetoric,” Dr. Naomi Rose, of the Animal Welfare Institute, tells TakePart. “The industry talks the talk but does not walk the walk. We were able to provide them with solid science and information that confirmed that this import would violate the MMPA. Thank goodness the U.S. will not be a partner in this unsustainable trade.”
Courtney Vail, of Whale and Dolphin Conservation, is equally gratified. “The management of the wild populations where these belugas were taken in Russia is inadequate to protect them from the continuing assault of increasing capture quotas to supply the international aquarium industry,” she says. “And the Georgia Aquarium simply failed to demonstrate that this import is consistent with the requirements of the MMPA.”
Contrary to what the Aquarium and its partners had claimed, Vail adds, “the permit does not support conservation, but rather significantly jeopardizes belugas in the wild by perpetuating and instigating ongoing captures for display facilities. Even more appalling, they targeted vulnerable and depleted populations, including nursing mothers and dependent calves.”
Equally jubilant is Dr. Lori Marino, of The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy. “This decision should make it clear that the marine mammal captivity industry is not invincible and will be held to the same scientific and ethical standards we should all adhere to and expect of others,” she tells TakePart. Marino helped draft the “Scientists Statement Opposing Beluga Imports by the Georgia Aquarium,” signed by nearly 30 colleagues, and testified at NOAA’s public hearing last year. “This decision says that there are consequences to failing to meet those benchmarks,” she says.
The Georgia Aquarium called the decision “deeply disappointing,” in a prepared statement and, without presenting any evidence, warned 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.”
Meanwhile, the government took pains to state that its decision “is not a statement by NOAA Fisheries against the applicant, public display, or the live-capture of animals for the purpose of public display.”
What happens next is not clear. The applicants could appeal. Failing that, these gentle white whales, now living at the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station in Russia, may simply be put up for auction to the highest bidders in countries without MMPAs. But animal welfare activists want to see them rehabilitated for return to their natural pods off Russia.
“The world is changing,” Steven Wise, president of the Nonhuman Rights Project, tells TakePart. “The time is passing when the interests of such extraordinary nonhuman animals, and others cognitively complex, are routinely treated by government—legislative, executive, and judicial—as if their value is their amenity to human exploitation.”