The Georgia Aquarium has filed a complaint today in a U.S. District Court in Georgia, asking the court to overturn a denial of their request to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales into the United States for captive display. Last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) denied their request to import the whales, who were captured from Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk between 2006 and 2011.
While the belugas remain captive in pens at the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station and it remains uncertain whether they will be sent to other facilities, the permit denial was a small victory for whales and for conservation as the import would have been the first time in more than 20 years that wild marine mammals were taken directly from the ocean for captivity in the United States.
During the NOAA’s extended public comment period for the permit request, the public sent in 9,000 comments, many of which were against the import. Furthermore, a petition asking the NOAA to deny the permit gathered almost 76,000 signatures. The public’s stance on subjecting wild marine mammals torn from the ocean and their families to live an abbreviated existence in tiny tanks is quickly changing, and individuals the world over made their voices heard in their calls for the NOAA to deny the Georgia Aquarium’s request.
Per the application, the whales would be transported thousands of miles to the United States and split up amongst aquariums and marine parks including the Georgia Aquarium, SeaWorld parks in Florida, Texas and California and the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. Some would be transported between the Georgia Aquarium and Connecticut’s Mystic Aquarium to be part of Mystic’s breeding program.
According to NOAA, permit denial was based largely on the following reasons:
- Inability to determine whether the proposed activity, by itself or in combination with other activities, would likely have a significant adverse impact on the species or stock.
- The likelihood that the request would result in the taking of marine mammals beyond those authorized by this permit, as ongoing legal marine mammal captures are expected to continue in Russia. NOAA stated it believes issuance of this permit would therefore contribute to the demand to capture belugas from this stock in the future for the purpose of public display in the U.S. and worldwide.
- It was determined that five of the beluga whales proposed for import, estimated to be approximately 18 months old at the time of capture, were potentially still nursing and not yet independent.
If the NOAA has determined that the capture and export of these whales could have a negative impact on their species population, and that the import of the whales into the United States could lead to greater demand for wild-caught marine mammals by aquariums around the world, why does the Georgia Aquarium contend that the import would benefit the conservation of beluga whales?
These whales were taken from a wild population considered to be stable in hopes of placing them in captivity, where efforts to breed belugas have been largely unsuccessful for many years. Belugas live up to 50-60 years in the wild, but have an average lifespan about half that long in captivity. Captive beluga whale births are often unsuccessful, and the last beluga whale born at the Georgia Aquarium died within just a few days of her birth last May.
As we know all too well from Taiji, the trade in marine mammals for captivity is fueled not by concerns for conservation but by the desire for profit. Some conservation groups believe that two beluga whales currently being held in sea pens at Taiji’s Dolphin Base were taken from the same group of whales as these eighteen belugas being requested by the Georgia Aquarium. The slaughter of whales and dolphins is inextricably linked to the trade for captivity.
Sea Shepherd USA will continue to monitor this important and timely issue and advise you – our supporters – as to next steps regarding what you can do to rally a call to action.