The Aquarium Politics of the Global Beluga-Whale Trade

American facilities want to import 18 of the marine mammals from Russia. Why is this so morally and legally fraught?

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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.

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