Georgia Aquarium: We Have to Capture Beluga Whales in Order to Save Them

With their fate tied up in U.S. district court, 18 wild-caught Beluga whales continue to languish at a research facility in Russia.

Georgia Aquarium: We Have to Capture Beluga Whales in Order to Save Them

Photo: Tyson Paul/Getty Images

David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

In August, TakePart reported on the surprise rejection of Georgia Aquarium’s application for a permit to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales captured off Russia and now languishing at a research station there.

But earlier this week, Georgia Aquarium filed a complaint against the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) in Georgia federal district court, seeking to overturn the rejection, which had surprised activists and other observers of the captive marine mammal industry. Georgia Aquarium’s was the first application to import wild-caught marine mammals for public display in more than 20 years, and the first time NMFS ever denied a public display permit.

At the time, Georgia Aquarium called the decision “deeply disappointing,” adding that “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.”

Leaving aside the question of whether “the sustainability of beluga whales in human captivity” is a worthy goal, NMFS found that removing the whales from their natural habitat would cause considerable damage to the animals’ wild population.

According to NMFS, the best available science shows that this particular population, the Sakhalin-Amur beluga whale stock of the Sea of Okhotsk, is likely in decline, that the removal of any members could have a significant adverse impact, and that it might lead to the capture of more marine mammals beyond the 18 belugas included in the application.

In a statement posted online on September 30, Georgia Aquarium insisted that the government “ignored five years of research peer-reviewed by the highly respected, independent International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which concluded that acquisition of these belugas—which have been in human care for years—will have no detrimental impact on the beluga whale population in Russia.” The IUCN, it added, “is the world’s oldest and largest global environment organization and a leading authority on the environment and sustainability.

Dr. Naomi Rose of Animal Welfare Institute told me that IUCN’s analysis was in fact rather more nuanced than Georgia Aquarium portrayed it. IUCN showed that removing 29 or 30 animals a year would likely be sustainable—provided they were captured from the entire population, she said. “The IUCN specifically said that the way the removals currently were distributed was not a good idea for that local population.

“Georgia Aquarium failed to demonstrate that the population of origin is healthy because, in fact, evidence suggests it could be in decline,” she continued.

Anti-captivity advocates were disappointed, but not surprised by the aquarium’s move to have the denial overturned.

For the popular tourist attraction to push on, then, despite the science, law and overwhelming public opposition to the permit, “calls into question Georgia Aquarium’s commitment to conservation principles,” Rose says. “The trade out of Russia is sending animals to China and other regions with little experience in beluga care. Why does Georgia Aquarium want to be part of that?”

Aquarium officials did not reply to an email seeking comment, but it did recently launch a pro-import campaign in the court of public opinion.

A new YouTube video shows Vice President of Education and Training Brian Davis explaining why the “Beluga Whale Conservation Project” is supposedly such a lofty and worthwhile undertaking.

Davis repeats the industry’s longstanding claim that seeing belugas in tanks somehow inspires people to go out and directly help save them in the ocean, without providing any evidence to back it up.

During the video, Davis smiles gently as he tries to explain how the removal of 18 wild-caught, highly social animals, ripped from their families, will benefit all belugas—including wild ones—but makes no attempt to hide the true motive behind the high-stakes legal challenge: Without new DNA, North America’s beluga display industry will sputter to an end.

“Right now is a critical time,” Davis says gravely. Just over 30 captive belugas are kept in North American facilities, and they have a “relatively poor genetic diversity,” he says. “Our community is facing certain extinction of our beluga population in human care,” the industry’s euphemism for captivity.

As he speaks, the video cuts to images of beautiful white whales pacing around their small pool in endless, unnatural circles, which experts say is a common sign of mental duress in these highly sentient mammals.

Davis also vows that the aquarium will “always defend and support your right” to “see and be inspired” by belugas and other captive animals—as if there were a constitutional amendment guaranteeing public access to see cetaceans behind glass.

Meanwhile, the 18 whales remain in small pens in Russia. In August, Take Part reported on the anti-captivity group Fins and Fluke, which launched a Change.org petition to return the animals to their pods. As of now, Fins and Fluke is just shy of its 25,000-signature goal.

If the aquarium loses—no court date has been set—the whales will have to go somewhere.

Many activists fear they will be sold to marine theme parks in countries where animal welfare standards are far below those in the United States. Georgia Aquarium is an accredited member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums, which means a minimum of three percent of its annual budget goes to conservation science.

Finally, Rose says that various animal advocacy groups are currently “considering their legal options,” though she does think the appeals effort will fail.

“Meanwhile,” she adds, “the public really does need to make its feelings known about this to the Georgia Aquarium.”

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