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Op-Ed: How aquaria get their marine mammals — or in this case, belugas

By Elizabeth Batt     Jul 5, 2012 in Environment
Atlanta - Recently, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Georgia Aquarium had applied to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for a permit to import 18 wild-caught belugas captured from Russian waters. Ethically, something stinks.
After the article was initially published on June 29th, it just upped and disappeared before reappearing a few days later on July 1. This "announcing and then unannouncing" said astute observer Martha Brock, seemed a little strange at the time.
The removal of the article could of course have been a simple mistake; one I attempted to clarify with the its author, Bo Emerson. But he never responded. Zoe Nature, a site founded by Michael Mountain, past president and co-founder of Best Friends Animal Society found the entire affair a little fishy.
In a posting called "Capturing Belugas to "Save" Them," Zoe Nature demanded to know why, "In its usual fawning mode, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, published a glowing story about the plan on Saturday … and took it off its website on Sunday?"
Zoe Nature, home to contributors such as Lori Marino, a senior lecturer in psychology at Emory University and a leading expert on the brains of dolphins and the intelligence of marine mammals, then proceeded to berate the AJC for printing "whatever the Georgia Aquarium wanted it to write, without checking the facts with any outside experts who are not being paid by the aquarium, and without presenting any view at all other than that of the people running this aquatic zoo."
But again, the publishing and retraction of the article could have been a mistake; its content however is clear, and should raise red flags.
When read by the layperson, it appears the Georgia Aquarium is doing these belugas a huge favor for they want to conserve these whales for our children and grandchildren. According to Marilee Menard, the executive director of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums (AMMPA), these 18 belugas will "ensure the goal of a long-term, sustainable population for decades to come." In captivity that is. They will do nothing to bolster wild populations in US waters.
With only 34 belugas in human care in the US, the article says, including four at the Georgia Aquarium, many of those animals are past child-bearing age. William Hurley, the aquarium's chief zoological officer therefore confirmed that the 18 belugas will be used in a breeding program.
Breeding stocks are low it seems. "Only two males have contributed to the artificial insemination efforts carried on throughout the country" said Hurley, and "importing additional animals will make for a greater success at breeding efforts," he added. Never mind that the aquarium's breeding efforts resulted in the loss of an infant beluga calf just a few weeks ago.
In its sorrow, the Georgia Aquarium issued a statement saying that it was not unusual for first-born belugas to die in captivity and in the wild. This erroneous statement was immediately disputed by the senior scientist for the US Humane Society (HSUS), Naomi Rose, who implied the quote was misleading and deceptive.
But it is the ethics behind the capture of these marine mammals that weighs the heaviest.
Captured in the wild from the Sea of Okhotsk in eastern Russia, these whales are being held at a facility that gathers and sells belugas to marine parks every year. Just last year, a purchase of six belugas from the secretly-located Russian facility by Ocean Park Hong Kong, proved far too controversial for the public. After a public outcry, Ocean Park Hong Kong was forced to abandon their plan to procure the belugas or face the public's displeasure.
This incident obviously has not stopped the Georgia Aquarium from pursuing the same option. It has spent two million dollars on "sponsored research missions, hiring Russian airplanes, camping on treeless barrier islands near the arctic circle, to conduct population counts and epidemiological studies on the whales there."
Yet their mission isn't truly about research into the sustainability of wild beluga populations, it's about purchasing whales from a country that has been collecting them annually since the early 1990s. Russia is willing to sell them to any facility that will pay, and if Georgia Aquarium purchases these mammals, they become part of the demand that continues to support Russia's yearly beluga roundup.
But why is the Georgia Aquarium turning to Russia for new beluga stock?
The captive marine mammal industry in the US has its hands tied by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). The act makes it difficult for any captive facility to take belugas from US waters, because it states that these mammals must be captured by a method considered humane. There truly is no feasible way of capturing a large marine mammal without causing them undue stress. Public pressure also plays a role; it is the public's money that supports the industry, and whom the industry serves.
So if there is no easy way to capture a marine mammal, how does Russia capture its belugas? These two videos are from a two-part series that originally aired July 25, 2010 on Russia Today. The film shows the beluga capture process in the Sea of Okhotsk and their subsequent adaptation to captivity.
Hardly humane.
Part of the application process for an NOAA permit involves opening up the process to public comment. Candace Calloway Whiting recently contacted the NOAA about the process itself. The NOAA kindly took the initiative to address public concerns over the aquarium’s beluga import plans she said.
Once the permit application has gone through several steps the NOAA told Whiting, a Federal Register notice is published. At this stage, a public comment period of at least 30 days is given, with instructions for the public on how to submit comments.
It will take some time to reach this stage, but cetacean advocates concerned that a granted permit could set a dangerous precedence for other marine mammal captures in the future, are not sitting idle. Jennifer Mishler has created a petition that she plans on sending to all of the parties involved in the transaction, including the aquarium, the NOAA and the AMMPA.
Sadly, it may be too late to help the belugas earmarked by the Georgia Aquarium. These belugas have few options left having already been sucked into captivity. These whales will not be released by Russia, and if the US aquarium does not get its permit, they will be sold to other facilities outside of America. Some might agree that letting these animals come to the US is preferable to sending them elsewhere, but this dangerous path would only serve to endorse Russia's yearly beluga hunts.
On ethical grounds, the NOAA should not allow US facilities to financially support a capture in another country's waters if it would prove controversial in its own. This permit application has little to do with conserving the species and everything to do with breeding more belugas for captivity and petting pools. And while the capture may have been legal in Russia, and the import may be legal under an NOAA permit, this does not make it morally right.
On January 30, 2012, a travel writer with Green wrote about his encounter with the belugas at Georgia Aquarium and positively gushed over learning about "the different commands trainers use to get the whales to perform tricks ranging from making blowhole fart noises to spitting water in the faces of his unsuspecting victi… er, guests."
The entire experience he said, was "educational" and "made us want to fight even harder to protect them and other whales from the dangers they face."
What marine mammal facilities won't tell you, is that belugas in captivity don't act like belugas in the wild or there would be no need to train them, and the only real threat to belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) in the wild, is man.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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