U.S. to Ban Captivity of Some Beluga Whales

The Obama administration’s proposal would protect an overhunted Russian beluga population.

A beluga whale and a trainer interact during a performance at Tianjin Haichang Polar Ocean World in Tianjin, China, on April 1. (Photo: 'China Daily'/Reuters)

Apr 4, 2016· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

The United States is about to get involved in the fate of beluga whales in eastern Russia, including dozens of captured animals being held in tanks in the region.

On Tuesday, the National Marine Fisheries Service is expected to announce its recommendation to designate the population of beluga whales in the western Sea of Okhotsk as “depleted” under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The agency estimates that there are around 3,700 of these belugas remaining along Russia’s Pacific coast, less than 60 percent of their historic population.

The announcement will kick off a 60-day public comment period on the proposed designation, which would be the first time a marine mammal population in another nation’s waters has been deemed at risk under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, according to Naomi Rose, a scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute.

“It’s a precedent-setting proposal,” Rose wrote in an email, and one that is “part and parcel of the changing zeitgeist on captive cetaceans.”

“It will stop anyone from ever applying for another import permit” for Russian belugas, said Rose, whose organization petitioned the fisheries service jointly with Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Cetacean Society International, and Earth Island Institute to designate the western Sea of Okhotsk belugas as depleted.

If they succeed, the move will deal yet another blow to U.S. aquariums hoping to purchase Russian belugas for public display.

In September 2015, a federal appeals court denied the Atlanta-based Georgia Aquarium a permit to import 18 Russian beluga whales it had sought to bring into the U.S. since 2012.

The fisheries service opposed the permit, stating in 2013 that allowing it would likely have a “significant adverse impact” on the targeted beluga population and “result in the taking of marine mammals beyond those authorized by the permit.”

RELATED: A Win for Whales: Georgia Aquarium Can’t Import Belugas

SeaWorld, the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, and the Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Connecticut, would have each taken some of the whales under the aquarium’s original plan. SeaWorld withdrew shortly before the most recent court ruling.

Rose was unsure how many belugas remain in holding tanks in Russia but said the 18 whales sought by Georgia Aquarium have most likely been sold. Rose speculated that they may have been purchased by facilities in China, where she believes there are at least 114 belugas in captivity.

Georgia Aquarium could still seek to import belugas from outside the Russian population. Aquarium officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Rose hopes the new rule will affect the capture and display of belugas in Russia, China, and other countries by broadening the legal tools available to U.S. officials “to influence what is happening in these other jurisdictions.”

“The U.S. cannot do anything in Russia, of course—it has no authority in sovereign waters,” she said. “But it can talk and influence and even pressure.”

While the belugas already caught in Russia may have little hope of being returned to the sea, she said, “we can try now that the U.S. government has taken this position.”

A Russian filmmaker’s documentary about the beluga hunt, Born Free, exposes the brutality of the practice. In one scene, men wrestle with netted belugas in the shallows of a rocky beach, dragging some of them by ropes around their tails.

In 2013, the Russian government approved the capture of more than 260 whales, 18 for scientific research and 245 for sale to marine parks and aquariums.