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

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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.

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