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Uproar Over U.S. Request To Import 'Russian' Beluga Whales

A Beluga whale at the Moscow Dolphinarium
A Beluga whale at the Moscow Dolphinarium
A request by one of the United States' biggest oceanariums to import 18 beluga whales caught in Russian waters has set off a maelstrom of debate over the legality and ethics of wild-animal captures for science and entertainment.

Georgia Aquarium wants the distinctive white whales for a captive-breeding project that it claims will educate and inspire the public while helping ensure "the survival of belugas everywhere."

The request is for eight males and 10 females, some of whom have been languishing in Russian facilities on the Black Sea for as long as six years. They would be transported by truck to nearby Anapa airport, then flown via Belgium and New York before traveling on to oceanariums around the country.

U.S. federal approval is required because the "take or import" of belugas and other marine mammals is banned under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972, which was passed 40 years ago this month as U.S. activism grew to "save the whales" and institute dolphin-safe standards for tuna catches, among other things. ("Take" is defined by the law as "harass, hunt, capture, or kill, or attempt to harass, hunt, capture, or kill any marine mammal.")

If the animals end up being transferred, they'll become the first marine mammals caught in the wild and put on display in the United States since 1993.

All such applications must be opened for public comment for 30 days. But the current controversy prompted the National Marine Fisheries Service -- part of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) -- to extend that deadline for a month, to October 29.

It's the perceived threat to the moral underpinnings of the widely hailed MMPA -- legislation that was pushed by the scientific and ecology-minded communities and has brought some mammal populations back from the brink -- that contributor Elizabeth Batt protested in a op-ed:

Sadly, it may be too late to help the belugas earmarked by the Georgia Aquarium. These belugas have few options left having already been sucked into captivity. These whales will not be released by Russia, and if the US aquarium does not get its permit, they will be sold to other facilities outside of America. Some might agree that letting these animals come to the US is preferable to sending them elsewhere, but this dangerous path would only serve to endorse Russia's yearly beluga hunts.

On ethical grounds, the NOAA should not allow US facilities to financially support a capture in another country's waters if it would prove controversial in its own. This permit application has little to do with conserving the species and everything to do with breeding more belugas for captivity and petting pools. And while the capture may have been legal in Russia, and the import may be legal under an NOAA permit, this does not make it morally right.

It's been a bruising war of words and principles, with overwhelmingly critical responses on the NOAA's page for public comments.

This one by Amy Scott is fairly typical:

I am horrified by the news that Georgia Aquarium is going to enslave wild caught beluga whales for 'entertainment'. This should not be considered by a civilised society. The captive industry perpetuates the atrocities going on in places like Taiji, Japan, where the fishermen hunt, imprison, starve and murder hundreds of thousands of dolphins and whales every year. A few are selected for captive locations worldwide, where the viewing public is unaware of the suffering behind the 'shows'. Muhatma Ghandi once said that a country can be judged by how they treat animals. The judgement for the US would not be good based on the proposal from Georgia aquarium alongside the horrors of SeaWorld.

The MMPA provides an exception "for purposes of scientific research, public display, photography for educational or commercial purposes, or enhancing the survival or recovery of a species or stock."

Georgia Aquarium argues:

Belugas at accredited aquariums and zoos are important ambassadors to their species. They bring marine mammal education to life and inspire millions of people to become involved in conserving and protecting the species. Many of these people would not even know that belugas exist were it not for educational programs at our facilities. Georgia Aquarium embraces the importance of our obligation to educate the public on these majestic animals. We are one of only seven accredited North American aquariums and zoos committed to public display and breeding of beluga whales.

Clearly, maintaining a sustainable population of belugas in human care is essential to the survival of belugas everywhere. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, the zoological community is at a crossroads. With just 34 beluga whales in human care in accredited North American facilities, and relatively poor genetic diversity among those animals, our community is facing certain extinction of our beluga whale population in human care.

The implications of this will be devastating. Once the population of beluga whales in human care is gone, it’s gone. Many of our opportunities for loving, understanding and learning about these majestic animals will disappear too. Because of this, Georgia Aquarium is proud to take a bold step to help ensure this doesn’t happen.

The plan calls for six of the belugas to be housed in Atlanta, while the other 12 would go on "breeding loan" to the Georgia Aquarium's partners: Sea World (in California, Florida, and Texas) and the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. All but four of North America's current captive belugas are at those facilities.

Ironically, a lack of success in U.S. captive-breeding programs contributed to the request. Although it's been years in the making, the Georgia Aquarium's application was filed in June, weeks after the death of the only beluga calf ever born at that same facility. Just 24 belugas have been born in U.S. captivity since 1994, "The New York Times" reported recently. (One, a still-nameless 2-month-old female, is about to make her public debut at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium.)

Eighteen new animals would represent a huge jump in the North American captive-beluga population, currently between 31 and 34, depending on the source.

One of the previous generation of captive belugas in the United States made headlines posthumously this week when researchers disclosed that a whale named Noc seemingly mimicked human voices at a San Diego facility in the mid-80s.

Defenders of captivity programs cite the scientific benefits of close observation, interaction, and testing, as well as the perceived good of educating, entertaining, and exciting the public about the types of animal in question.

The Georgia Aquarium recently introduced a "Beluga & Friends Interactive Program" that pledges to provide "a unique encounter with these charismatic animals, giving guests an opportunity for an exclusive, close and hands-on interaction. Suit up and work alongside Aquarium beluga whale trainers, and create emotional connections that will last a lifetime":

Defenders also argue that beluga populations in the area in question are not threatened. There are thought to be about 150,000 beluga whales living in the Arctic waters of North America, Russia, and Greenland.

A scientific review panel funded by the five U.S. oceanariums gave a green light to the live-capture removals in the Sea of Okhotsk of the belugas in a 2011 report, although it also acknowledged misgivings about the methods used to estimate local beluga numbers (mostly in ways that suggest they've been underestimated).

Opponents, meanwhile, fall roughly into two camps.

Some critics of the Georgia Aquarium's request allow for instances of captivity but complain of ill-treatment, overexploitation or disregard for wild populations, dubious scientific goals, and other negative aspects of the practice.

Others insist such wild animals don't belong in captivity for lots of inherent reasons -- including their intelligence as well as cognitive and emotional well-being (and even "personhood"); our inability to approximate life in the wild; and people's principled opposition to the wild-animal trade.

Opponents include several former Sea World trainers like Jeffrey Ventre of Voice Of The Orcas. He suggested to me via Twitter that the only truly acceptable circumstances for captivity for free-swimming creatures like belugas -- accustomed to traveling dozens of kilometers in a single day -- are treat-and-release facilities:

While the public comments appear lopsidedly against captivity, the battle lines aren't necessarily as clear-cut as one might expect. A Boston University report chronicling the October 19 federal hearing on the Georgia Aquarium request quoted scientists for and against the beluga acquisition.

The Russian program to capture the belugas off that country's Far East coast has also come under fire.

The Marine Connection, a charity that aims to "protect dolphins and whales worldwide," has taken a strong stand against the trade in belugas and other wild sea creatures and singled out Russia for special criticism:

The Russian Federation is rapidly becoming the largest supplier of wild marine mammals to facilities around the world. As well as being a supplier of animals, the vast country has several of its own captive dolphin and whale facilities. The nature of the Russian Federation as a difficult country to gain access to and filter information from has meant that for many years, companies have been able to capture, display and export marine mammals without any monitoring or consequence....

The Marine Connection suggests that Russians -- whose international reputation suffered as a result of Soviet contempt for international bans and quotas on whaling and other hunts -- continue to capture and export marine mammals despite a lack of "historical or current population assessments for Russian beluga whales and the case is similar for other animals such as Black Sea dolphins."

They point the finger at one group in particular:

One notorious Russian company, Utrish dolphinarium Ltd., to this day supplies wild marine mammals to facilities around the world. As well as walruses and seals, Utrish captures wild beluga whales and dolphins from the Black Sea.

Utrish dolphinarium openly uses wild beluga whales reportedly captured in the delta of the Amur River, where their "fattening zone is situated". Wild populations of beluga whale are endangered and their future compromised by these continued captures from complex cultural pods which travel to the Amur delta.

Efforts to get a response from scientists connected with the Utrish facilities for this story have so far been unsuccessful.

But the captures are licensed by Russian authorities and coordinated with the Russian Academy of Sciences. There are "no more than 30" belugas caught each year, according to a recent report by Russian state broadcaster RT.

Here's that (cloyingly sympathetic) report on the nonlethal hunts:

Opponents are aghast at the stress the animals undergo during capture in the video, from the gunning of engines to the beaching and the keel-hauling they endure on their way to the pens.

Nikolai Marchenko, the head whale catcher, claims he's never had a fatality during transport. But he also hints at the fate that awaits the captive whales as his team releases a large female, saying: "Let her enjoy her freedom. She isn't fit for an aquarium. Their tanks are too small for a beast this big."

As the first segment of the RT video concludes, the reporter propagates a fundamental misconception that enrages opponents of such wild captures. "Away from the thrill of the open ocean," the reporter says, "they can slowly be consoled by human companionship."

The NOAA's fisheries service should issue its decision by early next year.

-- Andy Heil

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