Yesterday's public meeting at NOAA headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., tackled the issue of Georgia Aquarium's recent permit application to import 18 belugas from Russia. But there were a few attendees there who were clearly fish out of water.
And nobody knew who they were at first, until they began to change from stockinged caps to suits before entering the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Science Center Friday. Once they did, it wasn't long before the game was up.
Samantha Berg, former SeaWorld trainer and a member of the group Voice of the Orcas tweeted:
Just met someone who was paid by a temp agency to be here to "add bodies" to the room.
And Sandy McElhaney, an Administrator with the social media group Save Misty the Dolphin (SMTD), said she was surprised when they encountered:
A huge line of folks ahead of us ... most of whom were very clearly homeless people who were paid by the captive industry to hold their places in line. The suits from the captive industry didn't show up until the doors to the hearing were opened.
Martha Brock, was equally puzzled by the long line ahead of her. The former volunteer at Georgia Aquarium who left her position when she began to witness sharks and belugas dying is now part of the team at SMTD, and the author of the blog: Cove Blue for Jiyu. Brock snapped this picture of those waiting to gain entry to the NOAA hearing room yesterday:
Martha Brock, an administrator with Save Misty the Dolphin asked, "Who ARE these people, Georgia aquarium?"
Brian Barnes, a marine conservationist and a member of the crew for Ric O'Barry's Dolphin Project, said he actually spoke to several of the line holders at the meeting. He tweeted:
GA Aquarium paid temps $22/hr to stand in line from 5am in attempt to fill avail seats & block us from speaking @ hearing.
The fee paid clearly wasn't enough to guarantee their silence, as many of them freely admitted why they were in attendance, leaving a large dollop of egg on the faces of marine mammal execs.
McElhaney explained that the ruse didn't quite work out as planned:
Fortunately, NOAA had people pull their speaking order out of a bag, so it was completely random. Many of the folks on our side of the discussion spoke later, which I think had more impact.
And Alan Howard who also attended the meeting with SMTD added:
I tell you this, though, several of those homeless people who were being paid by the captive industry to stay in line, made their way into the hearing (to keep seats ready). They sat disinterested throughout most of the hearing.
But some of them became very interested in several parts of the testimony. When Dr. Naomi Rose (Humane Society of the US senior scientist) and Dr. Lori Marino (Senior Lecturer in Neuroscience and Behavioral Biology at Emory University) spoke. And then when Ric O Barry spoke and Martha Brock and Sandy McElhaney spoke.
Yet "on the other hand," added Howard, "they didn't give a rat's ass about what Georgia Aquarium had to say."
Professional line-standers are often hired by large corporations to take up slots in meetings and or hold a place for someone else. Just this past March, Xavier James Bannister, 34, was a line-stander outside of the Supreme Court for a hearing on the federal health-care overhaul.
According to the Washington Post, Bannister had no interest in the health-care law being debated, and was simply holding the spot for another line-stander Hans Scheltema. Scheltema claimed "he made $50,000 a year standing in line last year." More than enough to hire his own place holder when he doesn't feel like doing the job.
Hiring line-standers is as easy as finding the right company. Washington Express for example, has a page dedicated to "professional, competitively priced line-standing and seat holding services for congressional and judicial hearings."
But is it ethical to hire line-standers and seat-holders for a public meeting where places are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis? Even more so when many of these hired "temps" (with no interest in the hearing), stayed throughout the proceedings, taking up places for those with genuine concerns.
If the moral dilemma of this doesn't prick your conscience, perhaps wondering why the aquarium industry felt it was necessary to flood the meeting with disinterested parties will. After all, not only did these large corporations use their financial might to buck the system, it appears they were blatantly attempting to sway NOAA's opinion in their favor. Something they desperately need.
At the beginning of October, we told you that the planned import of wild-caught belugas by Georgia Aquarium had become the most contested permit in over a decade. There have been over 4,000 comments posted on the Federal Register about this move, most against the import of the belugas from Russia.
Furthermore, the aquarium industry knew that the public meeting would be attended in force by anti-captivity organizations and marine mammal activists, none of them lightweights in the marine mammal world.
In attendance and opposing the permit was Courtney Vail from Whale and Dolphin Conservation, senior scientist of HSUS – Dr. Naomi Rose, Dr. Lori Marino, Emory senior lecturer and member of the The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, former SeaWorld trainer Sam Berg and dolphin advocate Ric O'Barry from the Dolphin Project and Save Japan Dolphins.
All of them gave informed, logical speeches bolstered by a protest statement signed by 62 different organizations equally opposed to the beluga import. Supporting the experts, many concerned and educated members of the public rose singly and meticulously and voiced their own concerns.
Seems to me that aquarium executives felt like they needed to even the odds a little.
Bearing this in mind, if the marine mammal industry feels the necessity to try and buy its way into a permit because it cannot stand solely on its own testimony at the hearing, then that in itself should raise red flags – even for NOAA.
But the use of paid placeholders at the meeting yesterday, was best summed up by one of the world's biggest dolphin advocates and the star of the Academy Award-winning documentary The Cove. Ric O'Barry told Digital Journal:
Can you imagine that the Georgia Aquarium and the people who keep dolphins in captivity would stoop so low as to PAY people to attend a public hearing and thus shut out the public and stack the hearing against the public? What does that say about their lack of ethics, their lack of support, and their lack of meaningful interest in the welfare of dolphins or the public? To them, it is all about money.
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 DigitalJournal.com