Tag Archives: belugas

75 beluga whales to get a boat ride to freedom in Russia

Captive belugas held in icy pens last winter are headed to freedom.
The All-Russian Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography” (VNIRO) has made arrangements to release the last of the nearly 100 belugas and 10 killer whales into the wild after their capture was found to be illegal. While the previous releases involved long transport by container trucks and barges, weather conditions have caused the fisheries service to find a different path to freedom for the remaining whales.


[Background information can be found here, and updates on the condition of the captive orcas and belugas now living in the wild can be found here].


September 26, 2019


The research vessel VNIRO will take on board a group of belugas from Srednyaya Bay.

Animals are planned to be delivered to the Sakhalin Gulf to the coast of the Khabarovsk Territory in the area where beluga whales and killer whales were previously released as part of re-adaptation and release of marine mammals into the natural environment. The road from the bay to the place of release will take about three days.
The change in the method of transportation and release of animals was caused by the flood on the Amur River, the deterioration of roads in the Khabarovsk Territory due to heavy rains and the closure of a number of sections after flooding, which did not allow transportation according to the established scheme “motor transport / barge / motor vehicle”. Because of this, the beginning of the next operation to release animals had to be constantly postponed.
“Science has already had successful experience in releasing animals from a vessel,” said Alexey Baitalyuk, deputy director of the All-Russian Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography, head of the Pacific branch of VNIRO. – We expect that the whole process will be successful and no weather conditions will hinder us. Transportation of animals will begin in the very near future. ”
Special baths have been prepared for belugas, in which they will feel comfortable throughout the entire route. The animals will be accompanied by specialists from the Pacific branch of VNIRO and veterinarians who will monitor their health.
VNIRO Press Service

Satellite tracks of two of the other freed belugas 9 Sept 2019, in the region where the remaining whales will be released.

Image credit: VNIRO

A second freed captive orca has found her family; updates on the other released Russian whales

Mixed news on the young captive orcas who were released back into the wild in Russia – while a second released orca appears to be traveling with wild killer whales, the group of four seems to have disbanded somewhat. Two of the released belugas are in an area with wild whales.

Zina with wild orcas 9 Sept 2019. Photo Credit: VNIRO

On the plus side, scientists of the All-Russian Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography (VNIRO) and the Institute of Ecology and Evolution Severtsov Russian Academy of Sciences (IPEE RAS) have determined that a second released captive orca is now traveling with wild whales.  From VNIRO:

During monitoring conducted on catamarans in the Shantar Islands, scientists observed a family of wild killer whales off the coast of the South Shantar archipelago. The group had at least 14 killer whales, which they managed to photograph. After a careful analysis of the photographs and their comparison with the photograph and description of animals from Srednyaya Bay, it was noted that one of the killer whales in the group has characteristic scars of the selected mark. Individual signs made it possible to identify this killer whale as Zina, released in the second installment on August 6. The animal got rid of the [satellite tag] that it was set upon release.
“Some killer whales from the wild family in which Zina was met were previously identified, included in photo catalogs and there is biological information on them,” said Vyacheslav Bizikov, deputy director for research at VNIRO. “They are classified as a carnivorous ecotype.”

The first orca who was accepted by a group of wild whales, a young female named Vasilievna, was documented hunting and sharing food with them on August 20th.
With only tracking data, it’s difficult to assess the situation of the group of four (Alexandra, Tikhon, Zoya, and Gayka) who reportedly stayed together for 10 days. The young male, Tikhon, has traveled south either alone or in the company of wild whales. The three females remain in the same general area either together, or within an easy day’s travel distance (approximately 50 miles (80 km) from each other).
Alexandra’s path (green dot with the number 3) coincides with another orca’s track so they may have traveled together at the last location on September 7th.
Because visual documentation hasn’t been reported, all we know for certain is that they are near each other in the same area as wild orcas and appear to be thriving. But that alone is good news!

According to the latest data from satellite tags, killer whales from the third issue of Zoya, Tikhon and Gadget, as well as the younger female Alexander from the second issue, who joined them, moved together for about 10 days. Then the group broke up and now three females Zoya, Gadget and Alexander are located near the island of Feklistov of the Shantar archipelago, the male Tikhon went to the Tugursky Bay.
Killer whales Kharya and Forest, having traveled from Cape Perovsky past Sakhalin Island to the open sea, returned to Sakhalin Gulf.

Forest and Kharya location 9 Sept 2019. Image Credit: VNIRO

Little has been reported on the 12 belugas who were released, but tracking data shows that at least two of them are in the same area as Tikhon:

Two belugas from the fourth issue with [tags] are also located in the Sakhalin Gulf. In this area, scientists and fishermen noted the appearance of wild killer whales and beluga whales. (Press – Service VNIRO).

Location of two belugas 9 Sept 2019.  Image Credit: VNIRO

Freed captive orca photographed with a group of wild whales in Russia; hunting and sharing food

Freed captive orca Vasilievna is now hunting and food sharing with a group of wild whales.  She is on the far right, identifiable by her tag.

How often we wake up to good news these days is anyone’s guess, but when that news involves a project that required people to put aside political beliefs, to work with groups who opposed each other in fundamental attitudes about cherished wildlife, to find funding…this success is stunning. At least one of the freed killer whales in Russia has been accepted into a wild group.
It means that captive orcas can be released back into the wild and successfully find their families (or at least into a group that will accept them).
And hopefully, it means that there is as much public support to see these kinds of reparations to nature as there is to see the babies taken to captivity for our amusement.
A huge amount of work has gone on behind the scenes by people who may never be known; so congratulations to you too. And to those who gave financially, and to the public worldwide for caring.
The trials of adjustment aren’t over for the whales (more on that later) but whatever the final outcome, this tremendous effort has shown the world that it can be done.
From The All-Russian Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography (VNIRO):


According to data from satellite tags installed on animals released into the Sea of ​​Okhotsk on August 27, 2 killer whales Kharya and Forest moved 50 km from the place of release and are moving towards Sakhalin.

The trajectory of their movement is very similar to the one along which the youngest female killer whale Alexander from the second release.

Locations of the released captive orcas in Russia. 29 Aug 2019  Image Credit:  VNIRO

Killer whale Alexandra reached the Shantar Islands, where now there are other animals released from the Srednyaya Bay. It is 40 km from the three killer whales of Zoe, Tikhon and Gadget, which hunt in the region of Udskaya Bay.
As part of a joint monitoring and exchange of information between VNIRO and the Coalition “For the freedom of killer whales and whales”, Grigory Tsidulko, a member of the Council for Marine Mammals, said that during the study of bowhead whales in the Shantar Sea, he and other members of the Council: Svetlana Artemyeva and By Stanislav Zakharov, on August 20 a tagged killer whale was discovered, one of the ones released in the summer of 2019. The killer whale was [encountered] in the bay of Constantine.
At the time of the meeting, she was in a group with other seven killer whales and participated in the hunt. In front of observers, a family of killer whales caught two seals, which were divided between the group members and eaten.
Analysis of images taken during [observation] of killer whales [taken] allow us to define the tagged killer whale as “Vasilievna” – this is a female released into the Sea of ​​Okhotsk in the first installment on June 27.

Photo Credit: VNIRO

Belugas are located 25 km from Cape Perovsky and move in the opposite direction from killer whales towards Alexandra Bay.
VNIRO Press Service

All 10 killer whales and 12 of the captive belugas have been successfully released into the wild

In an unprecedented effort, the All-Russian Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography (VNIRO) orchestrated the release of ten young orcas and a dozen belugas who had been destined for a life in captivity having been illegally caught a year ago. Starting in July the orcas were trucked and barged in groups of two or three over hundreds of miles to be returned to their ocean home. (Background information can be found here). The belugas were moved in two groups of six.

Harju and Forest have been released to the wild in Russia. The orca on the right may have cream over sensitive or scarred tissue.       Photo Credit: VNIRO
The challenges were extreme for the crews as well as for the whales, from heat to nearly flood conditions. Tons of ice had to be obtained to keep the animals cool, and they had to be protected from the sun while they spent an average of 5 days in small containers.
Whale experts from around the world freely gave advice, and organizations such as Greenpeace readily participated when they had the opportunity.
Satellite tags were applied to most of the orcas and some of the belugas, which has allowed the scientists to follow at least one member in each group. The scientists plan to follow Harju and Forest for a few days and hopefully will have updates on the rest, but as of August 25th, the young Alexsandra was only about 15 miles (25 km) from the two other orcas she was released with. Orcas have been documented to swim 100 miles in a day, so she may have caught up with the others already if that was her intention.

Animals traveled 1800 km from the Srednaya Bay of Primorsky Krai to the coast of the Sea of ​​Okhotsk, which lasted 5 days. Despite the difficulties associated with the difficult traffic situation in Primorye, caused by long rains, high water and rising water levels in the Amur River, the [whales] were successfully delivered to the place of release.

Photo Credit: VNIRO

The two killer whales, a female named Harju and a male named Forest, were released together from a specially designed pen on a catamaran after they were massaged to restore their muscle tone.

 They circled for some time near the shore, and then together went into the northern part of the bay. Their behavior is currently being monitored by VNIRO scientists who will accompany animals in the first days of their stay in the wild.
After the killer whales moved away from the place of release to a safe distance, the preparation and release of beluga whales began.

Photo Credit: VNIRO

They were released alternately directly near the coast. First, the crane lowered the stretcher in which the animal was located on a soft mat on the shore. Here, scientists took measurements of belugas, took a blood, tissue and [breath] analysis, after which the crane lifted the stretcher and lowered it into the water near the shore to a depth of 1.5 m, where two trainers helped the animal to get out of the stretcher so as not to damage the fins.

Photo Credit: VNIRO

The belugas dove underwater and although it was impossible to see them, two of the larger whales have satellite tags and can be followed by scientists.
There are approximately 80 belugas left in the pens in Strednaya, all of which are scheduled for release before winter sets in.
The whales were captured and released in the Sea of Okhotsk, and held for a year in Srednaya Bay. Image credit: timesUK.co

Alexandra’s latest position (upper red dot) and the two others (green dot). Image Credit: VNIRO

The last 2 captive orcas are on their way to freedom in Russia, along with 6 belugas (updated)

UPDATE  23 August 2019:

Upon arrival at the port, the [whales] were given time to rest after a grueling road lasting more than 19 hours due to the difficult traffic situation in Primorye caused by long rains. In some sections of the route, the convoy was forced to move at a speed of 5-10 km per hour. Despite the long journey, veterinarians noted that killer whales and beluga whales carried it with minimal stress.
The fourth batch of animals includes 2 killer whales – an eight-year-old female named Kharya and a six-year-old male Forest. In Srednyaya Bay, they were always together in the same [enclosure]. The beluga includes 3 males and 3 females. The age of the animals is from 3 to 6 years. A balanced group was selected for the release, both from older and younger individuals.
On Monday, the ship will come to the village. Innokentyevka of the Nikolaev district, where the animals will be changed water and reloaded onto cars for further transportation to the coast of the Sea of ​​Okhotsk. Veterinarians, trainers and scientists of VNIRO will monitor the state of health throughout the river stage of the journey.
VNIRO Press Service

Alexandra and other released captives are reported to be thriving in the wild.

The whales were captured by companies that used loopholes in the law to obtain permits. Because the permits did not allow capture for the purpose of display, the Russian government ordered that all of the whales be returned to the wild.  For more background information, please see Saving the lonely orca calf, Alexandra: What are her options? (Videos).
There are few details to share at this point, and there is no mention of Greenpeace observers for this final killer whale release. However, the Russian fisheries service (VNIRO) reports that all the whales were given health inspections and are strong enough to withstand the long journey to freedom. They also maintain that all eight of the previously released whales have adapted back to life in the wild, in spite of the stressful travel. Two of the orcas don’t have functioning tags but the rest have been located.
The transportation of the whales has been streamlined, the first group endured a week in small containers, but if the weather holds this trip will take about four days.
This is the second group of belugas to be released, leaving approximately 80 awaiting return to the wild.


On August 22, the fourth stage of the joint operation of VNIRO [Russian Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography] and specialists in the release of animals from Srednyaya Bay into the natural environment began. 2 killer whales and 6 belugas were loaded onto vehicles and, as a convoy, escorted by the traffic police, went to Khabarovsk.
These are the last killer whales, male and female, which were in the adaptation center. The condition of the animals, which have a long journey, was evaluated by the veterinarians as satisfactory. Behind them, as in previous times, professional supervision by veterinarians, VNIRO scientists and trainers will be conducted throughout the entire road.
Tomorrow afternoon, the convoy will arrive in Khabarovsk and the next stage of the journey, the animals will pass on the ship along the Amur River to Nikolaevsk-on-Amur.

Capture and release sites. Image credit: timesUK.co

3 more young orcas are on their way to freedom from captivity in Russia, bringing the total freed to 8

Homeward bound – their journey may be arduous, but just imagine their joy as the young killer whales swim far and deep to once again hunt their prey in the bays and fjords of the Sea of Okhotsk.

Orca being loaded for journey to freedom
Heading for freedom (Greenpeace photo)

This is the third group to go, and each time improvements are made in transporting and freeing the whales. This time
Greenpeace Russia has been granted limited access to observe and record the process, although they are forced to observe from a distance of 300 meters (328 yards).
Officials from the Russian Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography (VNIRO) has apparently allowed a single media representative to observe as well.
The whales were initially captured by companies that used loopholes to obtain permits to capture a dozen orcas and around 90 beluga whales which they planned to sell to amusement parks in China. However the permits did not grant the captures for the purpose of display, and now the whales are in various stages of being returned to the wild.
According to representatives of VNIRO, the three orcas – two males and one female – were housed together and range in age from around six to 10 years old. It is hoped that they are a well-bonded group who will stay together, unlike the situation that left a young orca, Alexandra, alone and unable to hunt on her own.
Once again the orcas will face a challenging 5 to 6-day road and barge trip in modified tanks, and this time through heat in the 90’s. Greenpeace reports that adequate measures have been taken to prevent the whales from overheating:

“On the day of issue, the temperature on the Nakhodka-Vladivostok road reached +35 [95 F], on the coast it was +30 [86 F]. VNIRO is stocked with ice and good insulating bath materials. On the barge, in which orcas swim on the Amur there will be three tons of ice.
We very much hope that orcas will survive this adversity and safely dive into the waters of the Sea of ​​Okhotsk, forgetting the past year like a bad dream, ”said Oganes Targulyan, leading expert of the project on the release of killer whales and beluga.

There are two remaining orcas and over 80 beluga whales at the holding facility, although 7 belugas have been released. VNIRO and Greenpeace Russia collaborated in putting together this video of the belugas’ return to the sea (in June):

Recently captured young orcas and belugas now face danger as their pens freeze over

It should be noted that an earlier assessment of this “adaptation center” was conducted exactly a month prior (on December 19, 2018), with the help of other specialized experts. It had been organized by the Primorsky Office of the Investigative Committee of Russia, which then reported that all animals were in good condition—although the number of beluga whales was three less than earlier reported. The December assessment claimed that nothing was threatening the life or health of the remaining whales. The same representatives of this Investigative Committee also noted that the bay, in which the animal enclosures are located, does not freeze over in winter.

January 24, 2019. At the end of last week a team led by the local Border (Coast) Guard Service of the Federal Security Bureau (FSB) of Russia went out to assess the “center for the adaptation of marine mammals” in Srednyaya Bay, near Nakhodka (in Primorsky Krai)—a site that is better known as the “whale jail”. Leading Russian experts in the fields of biology, ecology, veterinary medicine, and cetacean behavior in captivity were also involved in this team.

On January 18-19, 2019, experts were invited by the Primorsky Coast Guard to inspect the killer whales and belugas, as well as the enclosures in which they are kept. A considerable amount of data was collected, including: skin samples from all 11 killer whales (for genetic research); samples of exhalations and skin smears from damaged areas of the body (to detect any pathogens); water quality samples from the pens; and recordings of vocalizations (or animal speech). In addition a large number of photos and video footage was taken for subsequent thorough analysis.

At the time of the inspection, Srednyaya Bay was not really frozen over. But the entire “adaptation center”, together with the adjacent water area, was completely covered with dense ice measuring several centimeters thick. This is a big problem for all the enclosures (both the open pens, with the belugas, and the closed ones, with killer whales). The “center” staff were seen to spend a tremendous amount of time trying to get rid of the ice. They are forced to use heat guns and compressors, which are used to accelerate water movement and manually remove the ice from the enclosures on a daily basis. The belugas are accustomed to living in icy conditions; but they are absolutely not used to this constant splitting and clearing of ice by people in close proximity. This work is certainly causing anxiety, and is a potential source of severe stress for the animals, as evidenced by their behavior. Thus, during a check in one of the small enclosures with the belugas, it was noted that 12 people simultaneously were chipping ice and throwing pieces over the fence. And in these pens the animals were spending much more time under water during this process, and were moving noticeably less actively, than whales in the neighboring enclosures.

In the process of their evolution Beluga whales have adapted to colder climates. They lack dorsal fins (other cetaceans lose heat through this “cooling” fin, mainly because it does not have a fat layer). Orcas on the other hand are not so cold-resistant. Under natural conditions, these killer whales of the northwestern Pacific are not observed around ice. Yet in the open-air cages here in the “adaptation center” they are forced to come into direct contact with ice—a fact which probably has some effect on their health.
Several females (given the names of Zina and Gaika), as well as one male (Tikhon) show noticeable and unusual (for orcas) evidence of mottling and other changes in the skin of the dorsal fin and spinal areas. There were similar anomalies (but often larger and more pronounced—with serious peeling away of the skin) noticed in other orcas – the females named Zoya, and the youngest Alexandra, as well as in the male named Leha. However, one whale named Kirill stands out in this regard – the skin on the fin and upper back area behind his fin is peeling off in large, flapping chunks.

Or course, changes in the surface of the skin may often be associated with molting – a natural change to the outer layers of the skin. Molting of big pieces of skin was observed in bowhead and sperm whales, but it is very rare for killer whales. In this case, the abnormalities of skin may be due to external thermal injuries (from hypothermia and frostbite). In fact, this is quite likely, given that the temperature drops in the tented enclosures every night, with shallow ice and slush accumulates, despite all the efforts of the workers at the center to prevent icing over. It was seen that the killer whales also have rounded skin lesions, which could be due to fungal diseases. Samples taken from animals (skin smears) will soon allow us to more accurately determine the presence of any skin diseases.
There are many cracks and scrapes on the skin of the orca named Leha, injuries that could have been obtained while loading and unloading the animals. These scratches are seen between the pectoral fins, and on other parts of the lower body surface. Other killer whales may also exhibit similar scarring— but it was extremely difficult to inspect the abdominal underbelly of ​​all the whales.

It should be noted that the experts who checked on the “adaptation center” last month had previously noted that the animal skin had almost no noticeable damage. This means that the condition of the skin in at least 6 out of the 11 killer whales has deteriorated.
The general physical condition of the majority of killer whales can be called generally satisfactory. But Kirill’s condition is of great concern. He is completely inactive, looks sick and floating motionless for long periods of time. He often comes into contact with the icy sludge, possibly causing hypothermia with more pronounced damage to the skin that is manifest with Kirill. His breathing is very slow and “gentle”, which can be a sign of pneumonia or other diseases of his internal organs. Next to his dorsal fin, markings on the skin similar to injection punctures may indicate that therapeutic procedures were used on this whale. The state of health of all the animals will be clarified by tests done on the skin samples and exhalations—tests which often take a good deal of time to complete.

The killer whales are divided into three groups of 3, 4 and 4 animals. They do communicate with each other and, possibly, with animals from neighboring enclosures. All the animals are eating food, and are given herring and pink salmon, which is generally acceptable forage in captivity. Nevertheless, this is not normal food for these killer whales, since they are likely to belong to the transient populations of orcas that in natural conditions feed on other marine mammals (such as seals, and sea lions, and even other whales).
Visual inspection of the belugas showed that their number has not changed since the last inspection. There are still 87 individuals. Once again these beluga whales are showing anomalies in their appearance—although not as pronounced as in the killer whales. For many of them, in the area of ​​the back of the head, neck and breathing hole, there appeared a lot of strange dark spots, which is usually not observed in beluga whales that are kept in captivity in aquariums. One beluga whale showed signs of losing weight — a marked reduction in the fat layer appeared around the neck, which is not characteristic of a healthy, normally feeding animal. But in general, according to preliminary visual data, the general condition of the belugas is estimated as more favorable than the killer whales. They all take on food – also herring and pink salmon. It should be noted that, among the belugas, there were younger animals aged up from under a year to 3-4 years of age. The number of individuals born in 2018, the so-called “juveniles” at the time of capture, will be clarified after a thorough analysis of the photos and videos.

One particular threat to the animals’ health was noted by the experts: a complete absence of any sanitation facilities or any measures in this “adaptation center” aimed at preventing pathogenic microorganisms from entering the animal enclosures. There were no disinfecting barriers or any decontaminants or disinfectants applied at any of the entrances to the “center” as a whole, or at any entrances to the individual pens.

Also, there is no separate entrance for each of the pens; the passageway to all the enclosures leads only through the first enclosure with the killer whales, where Kirill, Alexandra and Vitas are kept. Every day a lot of “center” staff pass by, dragging their various equipment, ice-cleaning tools and heavy wheelbarrows with fish, likely causing more anxiety and stress for the killer whales.
Experts will give more detailed and substantiated conclusions later, when they process all the information obtained at the site, and conduct their research on the collected samples.
All photos and videos are the property of the public campaign known as: “Free Russian Whales” and could be shared publicly without written consent.
For more information about the campaign “Free Russian Whales” please see:http://freerussianwhales.org/
Press release published by the
Regional public organization “Sakhalin Environment Watch”
Sakhalin Regional Public Organization Club “Boomerang”
Regional Public Organization “Ocean Friends”
Rehabilitation center of marine mammals “Seal”
Scientific and Ecological Center for the Rescue of Dolphins and Other Marine Mammals “Delfa”

Georgia Aquarium Appeals Beluga Permit Decision; Animal Welfare Institute, Whale and Dolphin Conservation Respond

Do we really need more whales in tanks?
Do we really need more whales in tanks? Photo from Speak Up For Blue


From a previous post on this subject:

With most US animals too old to reproduce and naturally low survival rates for calves, the captive industry is in desperate need of new animals and new genes, but Americans are hesitant to allow amusement parks to destroy natural wild populations of whales and dolphins. The solution for the amusement parks was to help Russians capture wild belugas, then ask to have them imported to the U.S. after the deed was done. Will our government support this? That remains to be seen.
If the permit is granted, the initial distribution of the 18 animals proposed to be imported will be: three to the Georgia Aquarium; Shedd will receive four animals; SW San Antonio, six; SW Orlando, two; and SW San Diego, three. All the whales will be owned by the Georgia Aquarium, so the transfers will be made under breeding loan agreements. Mystic Aquarium won’t receive any, but some animals might be transported there in the future.

More information on this can also be found here.

Press Release:  Statement on Georgia Aquarium Appeal of NMFS Permit Denial

Date: Monday, September 30, 2013
Today, Georgia Aquarium filed a complaint in a federal district court in Georgia appealing the decision made by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to deny a permit application to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales from Russia for the purpose of public display. As conservation and animal welfare organizations committed to the protection of beluga whales throughout their range, we strongly support NMFS’ recent decision to deny Georgia Aquarium’s request for a permit to import the belugas.  We are disappointed that Georgia Aquarium has chosen to fight this decision.
NMFS used the best available science to determine that the import did not meet the requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Although the MMPA allows marine mammals to be imported for the purpose of public display, there is a specific process for issuing permits. This includes ensuring that the capture and import would not have an adverse impact on the stock of wild beluga whales. This particular permit application did not pass muster under the MMPA in part because NMFS determined that the import could have a significant adverse impact on the Sakhalin-Amur beluga whale stock and would likely result in the taking of marine mammals beyond those authorized by the permit.
Georgia Aquarium’s decision to challenge this sound and meritorious decision reflects a disregard for the integrity of the MMPA and the vulnerability of this population of wild belugas. Public opposition to this proposed import was overwhelming and, in combination with the strong science and evidence supporting a negative impact on the future of the affected population that underpinned the agency’s decision, calls into question Georgia Aquarium’s commitment to conservation principles.
For more information see:  http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/permits/georgia_aquarium_belugas.htm
Naomi A. Rose, Ph.D. (Animal Welfare Institute): 202-446-2120; naomi@awionline.org
Courtney Vail (Whale and Dolphin Conservation): 480-747-5015; Courtney.vail@whales.org

Import of 18 Wild-caught Belugas by the Georgia Aquarium is Denied!

(Apologies to readers, the Facebook button will allow you to share but will not record that you did, just a technical glitch!)
In a landmark decision today, NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) announced that it denied the request of the Georgia Aquarium to import wild-caught beluga whales.

The time of marine mammal circuses is drawing to a close.
The time of marine mammal circuses is drawing to a close.

After careful review, NOAA Fisheries concluded that the application did not meet several of the MMPA permit criteria. NOAA Fisheries denied the permit application because:
NOAA Fisheries is unable to determine whether or not the proposed importation, by itself or in combination with other activities, would have a significant adverse impact on the Sakhalin-Amur beluga whale stock, the population that these whales are taken from;
NOAA Fisheries determined that the requested import will likely result in the taking of marine mammals beyond those authorized by the permit;
NOAA Fisheries determined that five of the beluga whales proposed for import, estimated to be approximately 1½ years old at the time of capture, were potentially still nursing and not yet independent.
The Aquarium sought to import the whales from Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station on Russia’s Black Sea Coast for public display at its own facility in Atlanta and at partner facilities, including SeaWorld of Florida, SeaWorld of Texas, SeaWorld of California and Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.
The whales were captured from Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk between 2006 and 2011. There is little reliable scientific information about the size and population trend of the Sakhalin-Amur stock of belugas, and the impact on the stock of other human activities, such as hunting and fishing, is unknown.

Although not federally mandated under the marine mammal protection act unless an endangered species is under consideration, it is difficult for amusement parks and aquaria to obtain permission to display wild-caught cetaceans (whales and dolphins). Recognizing that public display facilities are woefully inadequate in meeting the complex needs of these animals and that public sentiment is not in favor of capturing wild animals for entertainment, NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service) has generally made exceptions only in rescue situations such as when animals are injured or beached.
While threatened by climate change and development in their natural habitat, as a whole the population has a status of ‘near-threatened’ (although some sub-populations may be more endangered than others) in the wild, the 18 belugas requested for import are in no way considered rescued. They were caught purely to supply the demand for fresh genetic material for the captive industry and to generate money in displays worldwide.
31 belugas live in six U.S. aquariums and theme parks, but industry officials claim that this population of captives is unsustainable due to inbreeding so in a move reminiscent of the dolphin laundering that went on in the past (Fall From Freedom, see end) they applied for the ‘already caught’ belugas from Russia. In order to succeed in their request, however, they had to demonstrate to the NMFS that they could prove the following requirements for import were met.
“The proposed activity is humane and does not present any unnecessary risks to the health and welfare of marine mammals,”
“The proposed activity by itself or in combination with other activities will not likely have a significant adverse impact on the species or stock,”
The first requirement – that the capture was humane and did not cause risk – is the toughest to evaluate, but it is accepted that it is virtually impossible to capture a wild dolphin or whale without risk to the health and welfare of the animals.
The aquarium might have been able to argue for the second requirement – since the belugas were already captured hence the importation would no longer have an impact – but that would mean that the U.S. supports what is tantamount to poaching by other nations. Allowing other countries to do what our laws prevent, then allowing U.S. amusement parks to profit would send a clear message that our laws are here to be circumvented by industry.
This decision goes a long way towards restoring faith in a system that has accepted the burden of its office – to protect marine resources – while simultaneously facing the pressure from the huge captive display industry. Past decisions that undermined that faith in this arm of the government – such as allowing the standards of care to be set by the industry, not biologists – belong in the past, it was a different time, with different people at the helm when the decisions to bow to industry were made.
Times have changed, and hopefully this is a signal that life is about to get a whole lot better for captive whales and dolphins, at least as far as the government is concerned.

Sea Life Park is Cleaning Up – “Empty the Tanks Worldwide” is Already a Success

A recent visitor to Sea Life Park on the island of Oahu in Hawaii snapped these photos of the sea lions’ pool. Although the enclosure does look dismal, the visitor noted that most of the tanks – from the sharks’ exhibit to the dolphins – looked as though they were newly cleaned. He reported that even the sea turtles were being thoroughly scrubbed by a keeper with a brush in their newly drained and cleaned pool!
The cleanup effort is a great first step, and shows that the amusement park industry may  be listening to public opinion at last – and the worldwide event to draw attention to the plight of captive marine mammals hasn’t even happened yet.

Sea Lion pool at Sea Life Park, Oahu. Photo taken by recent park visitor.
Sea Lion pool at Sea Life Park, Oahu. Photo taken by recent park visitor.

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Some algae remains, but Sea Life Park appears to be making an effort.

Elizabeth Batt in her article “First Empty the Tanks event to hit global aquariums this weekend” interviewed the organizer of the July 27th Empty the Tanks event at Ocean Park, Hong Kong and reports that this remarkably progressive aquarium fully has embraced the event:

Zoe Ng, the host of the Empty the Tanks event at Ocean Park, Hong Kong, reports that the aquarium has been surprisingly helpful and even accommodating for her protest. Ng told Digital Journal that she has enjoyed open correspondence with the park since day one.

 Having invited her to tour their facilities, Ng met with park chairman, Dr. Allan Zemen, Todd Houghland, Matthais Li and Una Wang, to discuss her protest along with her concerns over captive cetaceans.
Surprisingly, not only did Ocean Park graciously grant Ng approval to host the event by their entrance, they even offered her a display table for her leaflets.

This is the second time that Ocean Park showed their willingness to comply with public opinion on marine mammals – in 2011 they abandoned plans to import belugas due to public outcry. The Hong Kong aquarium represents a fine and forward-looking institution, and their willingness to dialog opens doors – instead of slamming them shut as do the U.S. amusement parks such as Seaworld.  Sea Life Park’s attitude towards inquiry bordered on rude and yielded only wrong information in a recent call.
The Georgia Aquarium is still trying to get a permit to import wild caught belugas (which they will farm out to Seaworld and other parks) even though the American public is largely against it.
Empty the Tanks Worldwide has united a global effort to educate the public about the need to modernize the theme parks, both in the attitude towards public opinion and their inadequate facilities.
Please click HERE find out how to participate, or to get more information on Saturday’s Empty the Tanks Worldwide event.