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Op-Ed: Public comment period opens for import of wild-caught belugas

By Elizabeth Batt     Sep 2, 2012 in Environment
Atlanta - On June 15, the Georgia Aquarium applied to the NOAA for a permit to import 18 wild-caught belugas from Russia. File No. 17324 has now been opened up to public comment in the Federal Register. It will become one of the most contested permits ever.
The submitted application for an MMPA (Marine Mammal Protection Act) permit requests authorization to import 18 beluga whales from the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station in Russia, to the United States for the purpose of public display.
According to the permit application, which can be read here, these marine mammals were previously captured from the Russian Sea of Okhotsk by Utrishskiy delphinarium. Utrish as it is commonly called, is a facility that supplies wild marine mammals to facilities around the world, and it has contributed to making the Russian Federation one of the largest suppliers of sea animals in the world.
Marine mammal protection group, Marine Connection, says of the animals captured (which also include walruses, seals and dolphins), all of them come from the Black Sea.
The 18 belugas that Georgia Aquarium wishes to import, will officially and legally be held by the Georgia Aquarium, who will transport them to other U.S. partner facilities under breeding loan agreements. These facilities are Sea World of Florida, Sea World of Texas, Sea World of California, Shedd Aquarium and possibly, Mystic Aquarium.
Backed by an International Union for Conservation of Nature sustainability study called the Beluga Project, these display facilities would have the public believe that the import is critical to conserving beluga populations in the wild. Yet in the next breath, a consortium of aquaria will argue that the pods from whence these belugas came, are healthy and sustainable.
Another thing these aquaria won't openly tell you, is that the IUCN study was collectively sponsored by Ocean Park Corporation, Hong Kong; Georgia Aquarium Inc., Atlanta, USA; Sea World Parks and Entertainment, USA; Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration, Connecticut, USA and Kamogawa Sea World, Japan.
Nor will they expand too much on the company behind the captures, how these whales were captured and why Georgia Aquarium is turning to Russia to restock America's captive beluga population.
The latter question is easy to answer. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), while capturing marine animals in US waters with a permit is legal, it states that marine mammals must be captured by a method considered humane.
Due to mammal size, pod structure, and close social bonds, these mammals must be forced (driven) into shallow areas. According to the IUCN study, the capture teams target small groups of belugas passing near shore and slowly force the seined whales into shallow waters. The live-captures are conducted by "a single team working at familiar sites where conditions are favourable for the technique employed," it said.
Sounds a bit like the Cove in Taiji, Japan, doesn't it?
In fact, let's go ahead and compare them side-by-side. Here is a Russian beluga capture courtesy of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW):
And here is the capture of dolphins in Taiji cove, Japan, courtesy of Sea Shepherd's Rosie Kunneke:
Yet Robert Michaud, (an Independent Expert of the Beluga Project), who with his staff participated in the Russian fieldwork in 2007, 2008, and 2010, said they "were favourably impressed by the way the experienced capture team caught and handled the whales."
In fact, Michaud (presently in charge of a long term study on the St. Lawrence beluga whale population protected under Canada's Species at Risk act), told the Panel, "That they were aware of only one death related to capture operations (a newborn calf that was accidentally entangled with its mother) over the last four years (2007–2010);" almost as if this was of no consequence.
Now remember, under the MMPA, the capture method must be considered humane. Clearly it is not humane, and aquaria know this, but they have no choice but to turn to Russia and have them do their dirty work for them.
Casting this aside for now, the study itself raises another ethical question not yet considered. Why is Georgia Aquarium, SeaWorld Parks and Mystic Aquarium even consorting with countries (Japan and Russia), whose humanity towards marine mammals is clearly shown in their whaling and dolphin slaughter practices?
Because it is a means to an end, and how these belugas get to the US is of little significance as long as they can bolster their disastrous breeding program.
Sadly, Georgia Aquarium's permit application has little to do with conserving the species and has everything to do with breeding belugas for captivity and petting pools. This was even admitted by William Hurley, the aquarium's chief zoological officer who confirmed that the 18 belugas will be used in a breeding program across all US facilities.
"Only two males have contributed to the artificial insemination efforts carried on throughout the country" Hurley said, and "importing additional animals will make for a greater success at breeding efforts," he added.
But what about all of the belugas that have passed through US parks and aquaria in varying degrees over the past 151 years? Let's introduce a little historical perspective.
According to, an online inventory of captive marine mammals, SeaWorld San Diego has lost an estimated 17 belugas over the years, all of them wild caught. The park now has just five belugas left, four wild caught, and one born in captivity.
SeaWorld San Antonio: 16 belugas deceased, nine of those wild caught; the remainder were born and then died in captivity. Many of the captive born lived from a few months to a few years. Only one made it to the ripe old age of 7 years, a mere child in beluga terms. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration NOAA), states that longevity for belugas in the wild is around 35-50 years, although other scientists have argued it is higher even than that.
SeaWorld Texas houses 8 belugas, 4 of them wild caught, 4 born in captivity. Historically, seven belugas born into captivity at Texas have died.
SeaWorld Orlando meanwhile, houses 4 belugas, all captive born and transported in from SeaWorld Texas or Marineland of Canada. Historically, three belugas have died, two of them wild caught. The third was a captive birth and died at 4 years of age after suffering gastric torsion from ingesting a lead weight.
Georgia Aquarium lost its two wild caught belugas within a month of one another but currently houses 4 belugas, all captive born and transported in from SeaWorld Texas. In June, Georgia also lost an infant beluga calf born at the facility.
The Shedd Aquarium in Illinois has housed 16 belugas over the years, six of those wild caught and 10, captive born. Nine belugas have since died, six of them were born there. Only four captive born belugas at Shedd, remain alive today.
Connecticut's Mystic Aquarium has a population of 4 belugas, 3 of these were wild caught, one, Juno, is a captive beluga who was born at Marineland Canada. Mystic has in fact, never had a successful birth although they desperately tried to get Kela pregnant through artificial insemination (AI). SeaWorld Texas also dabbled with AI, one calf lived for around a month and another, a twin, is believed to have been born dead.
The complete paper on the AI study is available at Ceta-Base and shows what happens when facilities become desperate. The paper calmy states:
AI programs may now be expanded to include spermatozoa collected post-mortem from incidental deaths of captive animals, or from wild animals killed during subsistence hunting in the arctic.
Where is the beluga conservation in the wild? The capture and display industry has had 151 years to improve upon it, since the very first whale was captured back in 1861.
But even more puzzling, are the lack of studies showing that keeping marine mammals in captivity is beneficial for their wild counterparts.
No belugas born in captivity are ever rehabilitated and returned to the wild, and in over a century, few studies have been conducted on belugas that have had any real impact. Here's a study about assisted reproductive technologies in captive belugas, and there is this one about Advances in Husbandry Training in Marine Mammal Care Programs, but remarkably few pertinent ones exist in over a century of captivity.
In fact, in 2010, the International Journal of Comparative Psychology, published a study conducted by Heather Hill and Monica Lackups at St. Mary’s University, U.S.A. which surveyed peer-reviewed articles from 9 different databases to procure publishing trends on studies of cetaceans found in both wild and captive environments.
Hill and Lackups produced 1,628 unique articles involving 16 cetaceans found both in the wild and in captivity. Sixty eight percent of them were conducted with wild populations." It forced the pair to contend that one of the "most important findings of this study, is the limited publication of research conducted with captive cetaceans."
Even more telling, was that within the published studies that they did find, the team identified that the most "frequently cited genus was Tursiops (bottlenose dolphins), which accounted for 42.9% of all the articles identified."
Again I ask, where is the conservation?
If the abysmal history of beluga captivity and breeding between these facilities is one issue, who these parks have turned to for the capture of these whales is another. Utrish dolphinarium Ltd., may also be exporting wild-captured Black Sea dolphins overseas, a practice that became illegal in 2002, says the British charity and dolphin and whale protection group, Marine Connection.
Furthermore, explained Marine Connection, in 2003, the Utrish dolphinarium:
Attempted the capture of a group of orcas in Zhirovaya Bay, Kamchatka in Far East Russia. During this capture a juvenile orca was killed. In addition, another young female orca was transported to one of Utrish Dolphinarium Ltd. captive facilities, where just a few weeks later, she died.
This type of activity would not be tolerated in US waters because of the protection afforded to marine mammals under the MMPA. Thus, if NOAA does grant this permit to Georgia Aquarium, it will be in direct opposition to everything it stands for.
It is for this reason that the permit application is likely to become one of the most contested in Federal Registry history ever. Many can appreciate that it is morally and ethically wrong to grant permission to Georgia Aquarium solely on the premise that the captures didn't occur in American waters. And yes, it may be legal, but that does not make it right.
Here's another workable proposal instead. Rather than raid Russia's belugas, sitting north of the border in Canada, are 38 belugas languishing in Marineland. The park is currently under investigation after former trainers at the Niagara Falls facility recently blew the whistle on its management for keeping its animals in deplorable conditions. If US marine parks genuinely care and wish to undertake a "rescue and conservation" mission, perhaps they should start there instead.
Please go to the Federal Register and file your objection to this proposal. You may submit comments identified by NOAA-NMFS-2012-0158, by any of the following methods:
Online: Submit all electronic public comments via the Federal e-Rulemaking Portal:
Mail: Submit written comments to:
Chief, Permits and Conservation Division
Office of Protected Resources
NOAA Fisheries
1315 East-West Highway, Room 13705
Silver Spring, MD 20910
Fax: 301-713-0376; Attn: Jennifer Skidmore.
The public comment period will be open through October 29, 2012.
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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