The marine wildlife conservation community is collectively breathing a sigh of relief today upon learning the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has announced it is denying Georgia Aquarium’s request for permit to import 18 beluga whales from Russia for public display in the United States. The whales were captured from Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk between 2006 and 2011 and are currently living in pens at the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station on Russia’s Black Sea Coast. Conservationists have long argued these marine mammals should not be taken from the wild for display for numerous reasons, not the least of which is the dearth of scientific data about the diminished population of the Sakhalin-Amur belugas, and the fact that the negative impact on the species from other human-induced activities, such as hunting, fishing and environmental degradation, is unknown.
The Georgia Aquarium sought to import the whales for public display at its own facility in Atlanta. Some of the belugas reportedly would have also been destined for display at Georgia Aquarium’s partner facilities, including SeaWorld of Florida, SeaWorld of Texas, SeaWorld of California and Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.
The permit denial was issued after an extended public review period during which NOAA received 9,000 comments for consideration on the issue. Longtime Sea Shepherd Jacksonville, Fla. coordinator Jennifer Mishler started a petition opposing permit approval, which garnered nearly 76,000 signatures. The permit application was reportedly the first to request importation of recently wild-caught marine mammals in more than 20 years.
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.
Sea Shepherd commends NOAA for its fair and well-considered decision in denying authorization of this permit. We unreservedly agree that by authorizing this permit, NOAA would have contributed to additional suffering and misery by these animals. Indeed, online reports indicate two beluga whales captured in the Russian Far East were transported from Vladivostock to Taiji earlier this year.
The two belugas, one male and one female of approximately four years of age, were transported to Taiji in exchange for four bottlenose dolphins that were captured during the barbaric and bloody drive hunts and slaughters that take place each season in Taiji’s infamous Cove. Some conservation groups have asserted the two belugas sent to Japan were likely captured from the very same group targeted by those entities trying to supply the aforementioned U.S. facilities.
The two belugas are reportedly being held at Dolphin Base, the sea pen facility in Taiji, where, after the drive hunts, most of the dolphins selected to be sold into lives of slavery and despair in captivity are held while they await transport to marine parks around the globe to perform tricks for their meals. The rest are brutally slaughtered one-by-one with a spike to their spine, causing them to drown in their own blood alongside their families in a horrific scene the likes of which no being should ever witness, let alone experience. Sea Shepherd’s Cove Guardians, who stand vigil over the dolphins and report on the drive hunts, captures and killings, were there last season when the belugas arrived.
At this point, officials are reporting they have no idea what will become of the 18 belugas who are now in limbo living in tiny pens at the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station on the coast of Russia’s Black Sea. Sadly, the 18 whales will likely be sold to meet the demand of the captive industry worldwide.
“It’s not difficult to connect the dots between the bloody slaughter and the international trade in whales and dolphins for the captive/entertainment industry,” said Susan Hartland, Administrative Director, Sea Shepherd USA. “When you buy a ticket to a marine park or swim-with-dolphin experience, the hard truth is you are contributing to the horrific suffering and abbreviated lives of these highly intelligent, social creatures.”