Aquarium’s beluga hunt

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

Ideally, wildlife conservation laws are crafted to benefit the country, the planet and various endangered inhabitants. But the Georgia Aquarium’s plan to acquire beluga whales from a Russian supplier, writes one scientist, endangers the whales and tarnishes our environmental reputation by opening the door to trading in protected wildlife. However, an aquarium official guarantees their safe transportation and says the facility’s research will help save the species.

Commenting is open following Naomi A. Rose’s column.

By William C. Hurley

In seven short years, Georgia Aquarium has become a global advocate for animals, and Atlantans are justifiably proud. A key aspect of Georgia Aquarium’s mission is to welcome the public to learn about animals they would never otherwise see, like beluga whales. An independent 2011 Harris interactive poll revealed that more than 90 percent of Americans support the work done by zoos and aquariums, particularly with regard to education and learning. Our commitment goes further: To ensure a future for belugas through conservation and research.

Beluga whales face climate change and other potentially devastating environmental issues. At Georgia Aquarium, we know it is vitally important that we act now on their behalf. To counteract these forces, our scientific knowledge of them must increase. Much of the research we need to do cannot be conducted in the wild.

We’re working to ensure a sustainable population of belugas in accredited North American facilities. Our success is measurable; of the current population, more than half were born in our care. However, our community now lacks the genetic diversity and age and sex distribution needed to sustain this population. If it is extinguished, we lose all opportunity to continue to care and learn about these incredible, graceful animals.

To overcome this dire situation, as part of the federal process mandated by Congress under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), Georgia Aquarium submitted an application to bring to the U.S. 18 beluga whales, which originate from Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk. Seeking assurance that acquiring these already collected animals would do no harm to the non-endangered wild population, we supported an independent five-year population study in that region. The study found this initiative would have no detrimental impact on this beluga population.

To ensure the welfare of the animals, our experts have created a transportation plan that includes personal attention to each animal. The process is proven, safe and humane.

Instead of offering realistic solutions to help us conserve beluga whales, a tiny minority of critics are arguing against this permit with unsupported data with little relationship to the truth. Astoundingly, they claim aquariums offer no educational value. They assert there is nothing more we can learn from observing belugas in our care. They cite non-existent policies and wrongly claim animals die during transports. They conjure statistics about supposed lack of breeding success. They even suggest that we instead “rescue” belugas from another aquarium, refusing to acknowledge that these animals are not designated for rescue by any appropriate authority .

These 18 belugas will help ensure a sustainable population and will enable us to conduct further research, which will enhance conservation of the species. They will allow us to continue our important educational programs for more than 100,000 students who visit us annually.

We remain committed to this groundbreaking initiative and will continue to do all we can for the animal world.

William C. Hurley is senior vice-president and chief zoological officer at the Georgia Aquarium.

A mockery of environmental laws

By Naomi A. Rose

It has been 20 years since a U.S. zoo or aquarium has taken whales or dolphins directly from the wild for display. Now, the Georgia Aquarium has submitted a permit application to the federal government to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales from Russia.

The aquarium has cast this proposal as a conservation initiative, which is a disservice to the public. It is a move that would take the United States off the moral high ground when it comes to the protection of whales, dolphins and porpoises. If approved, the request will make our nation a party to an inhumane and unsustainable trade in live belugas. Worse, after a 20-year hiatus, the aquarium’s plan will place the United States alongside those few countries whose captive facilities undermine legitimate conservation while professing to support it.

The public is firmly opposed to this proposal, as attested by the nearly 9,000 comments to the federal government, more than 69,000 signatures on a petition sponsored by The Humane Society of the United States, and the 45 non-governmental organizations, representing tens of millions of supporters, that have signed a statement opposing the import.

Leading scientists and animal welfare groups, including The HSUS and its global arm Humane Society International, agree that the journey will subject the animals to an unprecedented degree of stress — sending the 18 belugas on a 6,000-mile trek from the Russian coast of the Black Sea, where the animals are currently being housed. The dangers would be compounded by multiple transfers between trucks, containers and planes.

Much closer to home, there are 41 already-captive belugas being held at Marineland in Ontario, Canada, a facility under investigation by authorities for animal cruelty. The Georgia Aquarium and its partners — the three SeaWorld parks in Florida, Texas and California; the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, and the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut — could meet their breeding needs by working with authorities in Ontario to rescue these whales. Instead, the Georgia Aquarium is proposing to make our nation one more client of a Russian supplier that sends belugas, at a rate of 21 a year on average, to markets in China, Egypt, Turkey and other countries with little to no expertise in maintaining this Arctic species.

Russia is now the sole supplier of belugas to international markets. The 18 belugas were originally taken from the Okhotsk Sea, where belugas suffered intensive hunting until the early 1960s. The population is still recovering. It is unknown how many belugas the Russian supplier kills or injures during captures each year. For the United States to participate in this almost certainly unsustainable trade would make a mockery of the precautionary basis of our environmental laws.

The Georgia Aquarium and its partners are not just reversing a 20-year commitment to forgo wild capture, but opening the door wide to an inhumane and unsustainable trade in wildlife. It is a step in the wrong direction for the wrong reasons, and the federal government needs to stop it from happening.

Naomi A. Rose is marine mammal scientist for The Humane Society of the United States and senior scientist for Humane Society International.

23 comments Add your comment

Grey Stafford

November 21st, 2012
6:29 pm

Having been fortunate to work with animals from a training, research and animal management perspective for almost a quarter century, yes, by all means, “let’s look at the hard data.” Don’t take my word or any researcher’s word for it. Read the peer reviewed record for yourselves. For example…

Cetacean biology, behavior and medicine:
Nearly 60 years of published discoveries in marine mammal biology, behavior and pathogenesis, plus advancements in veterinary medicine, thanks largely to public display facilities.

S.H. Ridgway: History of Veterinary Medicine and Marine Mammals: A Personal Perspective. Aquatic Mammals, Volume 34, Number 4, 2008. pp 473-513 [approx 11 pages of citations].

(Dr. Ridgway has helped guide the science of marine mammal medicine since its infancy more than 50 years ago. His list of publications, discoveries and awards by academic, professional and governmental organizations is too lengthy to list here.)

Conservation, education and research:
To reduce the number of dolphins killed in fisherman’s tuna nets, early research into the development of escape gates and herding procedures included work with trained public display animals (e.g., spinner dolphins) to understand how animals react to various designs and best practices.

W.F. Perrin: Early Days of the Tuna/Dolphin Problem. Aquatic Mammals, Volume 35, Number 2, 2009. pp 292-305.

Beluga specific research:
A longitudinal study of the development of vocal communication in a beluga calf made possible because of a public display facility.

V. Vergara & L. G. Barrett-Lennard: Vocal Development in a Beluga Calf (Delphinapterus leucas) Aquatic Mammals, Volume 34, Number 1, 2008. pp 123-143.

If you don’t like these few published examples and their respective citations, there’s always the CRC Handbook of Marine Mammal Medicine by L. Dierauff. Available on Amazon. It has hundreds of citations across nearly 4 dozen chapters on marine mammal health, husbandry and more.

Of course, there’s plenty of scientific work yet to do in order to unlock the mysteries of all marine mammals, especially a polar and largely inaccessible species like belugas. But as the decades of knowledge reflected in just the few citations listed above indicate, public display facilities play an important and well-documented role in conducting beneficial science for the preservation of species in human care and in the wild.

Erin Mooney

November 21st, 2012
4:05 pm

Just because we are powerful and CAN do something — like hold wild animals in captivity — does NOT mean we should. But when has that ever stopped humans? If there is money to be made, you can guarantee we will continue to justify a lot of horrid abuse of other species. Thank you to those who are actively opposing these acts.

For the animals, for your children

November 21st, 2012
9:00 am

Nice to see that people are becoming more enlightened about animal capitivity for profit and speaking out.