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Major Victory for Belugas


It’s being hailed as a very significant victory for the anti-captivity movement. Today, the U.S. government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) denied the Georgia Aquarium’s application to import 18 beluga whales, captured from the ocean, and share them around the country with other marine zoos and circuses.

It would have been the first time since 1993 that an aquarium or marine circus had imported animals directly from the wild. And it would have set a major precedent, returning us to a time before public outcry forced the captivity industry to agree to stop capturing marine mammals to put on display.

Animal protection groups were up against the full lobbying power of a major industry.

Animal protection groups organized major opposition to the Georgia Aquarium’s plan. But they were up against the full lobbying power of a major industry, including SeaWorld, Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, and Connecticut’s Mystic Aquarium. (The Georgia Aquarium even tried to fill seats at a public hearing held by NOAA, last October, paying a temp agency to fill the room with bodies to prevent animal protection groups from getting in and offering oral statements.)

A decision by NOAA has been expected since February. And word went around in May that NOAA was expected to give a thumbs-up to the Georgia Aquarium any day.

But today, NOAA issued its decisions: Thumbs-down to the Georgia Aquarium; thumbs-up for the belugas. The agency described its decision as having hinged on three key criteria:

* NOAA Fisheries is unable to determine whether or not the proposed importation, by itself or in combination with other activities, would have a significant adverse impact on the Sakhalin-Amur beluga whale stock, the population that these whales are taken from;

* NOAA Fisheries determined that the requested import will likely result in the taking of marine mammals beyond those authorized by the permit;

* NOAA Fisheries determined that five of the beluga whales proposed for import, estimated to be approximately 1½ years old at the time of capture, were potentially still nursing and not yet independent.

More details from NOAA on their decision are here, where the agency also describes what were the comments from the public that were considered most significant:

The comments that were most helpful to our decision-making process addressed the specific MMPA and regulatory criteria that we must use to make a decision and discussed why the commenter felt the application did or did not meet them.

The comments we received pertaining to humaneness determinations (capture and transport), the age of the animals at capture, the status of the Sakhalin-Amur beluga stock, and the effects of the ongoing capture operation on beluga stocks were directly related to the MMPA issuance criteria and considered further in the decision making process.

In general, comments regarding opposition to captivity were not considered substantive as the MMPA allows for public display of marine mammals.  Also, the comments we received related to the care and maintenance of marine mammals in captivity fall under the purview of the Animal Welfare Act and the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, so we were unable to respond to them as part of this process.

The Georgia Aquarium issued a statement saying they have yet to decide whether or not they will appeal. On NOAA’s decision, they offered the standard talking points used to justify keeping wildlife in captivity:

“Sadly, the decision places the long-term global sustainability of an entire species in limbo. The animals in question would help to ensure the sustainability of beluga whales in human care in the U.S. for the purposes of education, research and conservation.

“Through ongoing conservation and research efforts, our team is proactively seeking solutions to learn all we can to protect these incredible animals in the wild in the face of increasing challenges to their survival as the effects of climate change, increased shipping and exploration for natural resources impact them in their natural habitats.”

Neither the Georgia Aquarium, nor SeaWorld, nor any other marine zoo or circus has, in fact, presented any evidence that they are helping to protect and “conserve” belugas. Belugas are not endangered – except when their young are captured with a view to bringing them to these business facilities for the purposes of entertainment.

Here’s what a typical capture looks like – this one from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) is from 1999, also from Russian waters:

NOAA’s decision is a major victory for the animal protection movement. However, it’s not the end of the story. Beyond the fact that the Georgia Aquarium may well appeal the decision, there is the question of what happens to the belugas now. They’re still “owned” by the Georgia Aquarium, and since they’ve been being held in sea pens, they would most likely need some rehabilitation in preparation for being returned to the wild.

Worse, it may be that they could be sold to some foreign business interest – a marine zoo in China, for example. That would be a case of “out of the frying pan into the fire.”

The Orlando Sentinel quotes Michael Payne, a top official at NOAA, as saying : “Unfortunately, [the Fisheries Service] does not control the live-capture operations in Russia. Presumably, the 18 whales will be sold, in lieu of capture of the same number of animals, to meet the demands of the industry worldwide.”

So, the belugas are by no means in the clear yet. But it’s a very important decision on their behalf, and a major step forward in bringing an end to the captivity of these highly intelligent, sensitive beings.

More information about the history of belugas in captivity, which began with P.T. Barnum capturing them from Canadian waters in the 1860s, is here.