When Georgia Aquarium applied for a permit to import 18 wild-caught belugas from Russia, their application became public in the Federal Register. This opened the application up to a public comment period that has so far attracted over 4,000 responses.
On June 15, the Georgia Aquarium applied to the NOAA for a permit to import 18 wild-caught belugas from Russia. File No. 17324 was opened up to public comment in the Federal Register. At the time, it was predicted to become one of the most contested permits ever.
With "more than 4,000 public comments — the majority in opposition," writes Jason Garcia of the Orlando Sentinel, "that's more than the agency has received for any permit in at least a decade."
The backlash to the import has been swift and anger-filled. From the concerned citizen to professional organizations, many have stepped forward to protest the import that would see Georgia Aquarium bring the belugas into the U.S., and then transport them to other partner facilities such as Sea World of Florida, Sea World of Texas, Sea World of California, Shedd Aquarium and possibly, Mystic Aquarium.
Statements from Whale and Dolphin Conservation, The Humane Society and Humane Society International have been damning. In an official NGO statement published jointly at Scribd.com, these concerned organizations said:
We, the undersigned, representing tens of millions of supporters worldwide, stand firmly opposed to the proposed import of 18 wild-captured beluga whales into the United States by the Georgia Aquarium and other US public display facilities.
Citing the import as "unnecessary" and posing "substantial risk" to the beluga's welfare, the statement details several issues of concern should the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service grant the permit to allow the import. Some of these include:
—A lack of transparency over capture methods and their associated mortality or injury.
—The exceptionally stressful transfer of the belugas, which will see them shipped via Russian transport planes to Belgium; each whale will then undergo another transfer to a new shipment container and a new airplane before flying to the United States.
—The Sea of Okhotsk, Russia, where the belugas were captured, is an area still recovering its beluga population after extensive hunting in the early 1960s.
Finally, the statement calls into question the actual purchase of belugas from Russia and an import that "will promote potentially unsustainable international trade in beluga whales."
The public comment period for the beluga import will be open through October 29, 2012, but prior to this National Marine Fisheries Service has also scheduled an Oct. 12 public hearing on the application at NOAA's headquarters just outside Washington, D.C.
Conservation agencies along with concerned members of the public plan to attend in force to protest the import in person. One group: Free the Atlanta 11, will print and assemble a visual petition that will be presented to NOAA at the public hearing.
The group explained its stance on its Facebook page:
While Free the Atlanta 11 does not support captivity of marine mammals in general, and recognizes that marine mammals are not suited to life in captivity, the addition of wild-caught animals is a movement in the wrong direction for the U.S. aquarium industry, and we do not support, especially, taking creatures from the wild under the guise of conservation.
The petition, which will include photographs from concerned public citizens such as seen below, will provide a visual platform for objecting to the Georgia Aquarium's planned import.
"We do not support this import" proposed by Georgia Aquarium and its partners said the group Free the Atlanta 11. In a visual petition that will be delivered to NOAA on Oct. 12, the group vows, "We will not visit their facilities and will also encourage others to not visit their facilities."
The belugas if imported, have been earmarked for breeding. William Hurley, Georgia Aquarium's chief zoological officer, said "Only two males have contributed to the artificial insemination efforts carried on throughout the country" and "importing additional animals will make for a greater success at breeding efforts," he added.
Yet despite over 150 years of belugas being maintained in captivity, statistics provided by Ceta-Base.com, an online inventory of captive marine mammals, appear to show that beluga breeding in a captive environment has been largely unsuccessful.
But aside from the breeding aspect, many also query the granting of a permit that is being perceived as morally and ethically wrong. These beluga captures would not have been tolerated if they had occurred in U.S. waters they offer, so to grant Georgia Aquarium a permit solely on the premise that the captures were conducted in Russian waters, is deemed as being hypocritical.
Courtney Vail, campaigns and programs manager for Whale and Dolphin Conservation, summarized public sentiment in a statement to the Sentinel. The import she said, is "a flagrant violation of the public trust," and "the reason there hasn't been captures since 1993" Vail added, "is because of public opposition."