To the Aquarium: The Case for the Beluga Trade

How the capture and a strictly-regulated market for white whales could advance science and conservation

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Sailors for centuries have dubbed them "canaries of the sea" for their chirps and warbles. One bioacoustic scientist famously noted that they sounded "reminiscent of a string orchestra tuning up." Belugas, or white whales, are also among the first cetaceans to have been brought into captivity -- in part because of their striking white appearance and engaging personalities but also because keepers say they're quick to adapt and train.

That impression was reinforced last week with the emergence of audio recordings of a beluga named "Noc" -- without prompting -- seemingly mimicking human voices. Noc was recorded during research at the National Marine Mammal Foundation in San Diego in the 1980s, when scientists say they subsequently taught him to "speak" on cue.

But the capture, harming, or import of belugas has been illegal in U.S. waters since the passage 40 years ago of the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). That legislation has helped many species of whale and other marine mammal to rebound from centuries of slaughter.

As we noted in this blog recently, however, Georgia Aquarium and four oceanarium partners want an exception to import 18 belugas for a captive-breeding project. We described the debate over whether the U.S. regulatory body in question should approve that request.

Critics note that wild whales are torn from tight-knit pods. They say the methods for capture and transport are cruel. They note that many wild populations of belugas are threatened. They suggest that beluga lifespans are woefully brief in captivity. And above all, they insist that even Georgia Aquarium's 32,000 cubic meters of water isn't enough for healthy, highly intelligent sea mammals born to travel huge distances in the open ocean.

Defenders -- including scientists commissioned by the applicants -- say the loss of so few animals poses no risk to an Arctic and sub-Arctic beluga population of around 150,000 animals. They also say scientific and educational benefits offset the negative aspects of captivity.

RFE/RL correspondent Tom Balmforth managed to contact one such defender, Russian scientist Dmitry Glazov. Glazov is a beluga specialist at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute for Ecology and Evolution Problems, and has headed tagging expeditions in the Sea of Okhotsk, where Russia's beluga-capture efforts are based.

We learned that the 18 animals at issue in the U.S. case are just a drop in the ocean compared with the quota of 1,060 belugas set by Russian authorities for 2012 to provide food for indigenous minorities (Chukchi), scientific research, or entertainment. (The breakdown of captures versus hunts was not available.)

The Russian beluga program has been accused by animal rights and ecological groups of recklessly catching all sorts of wild marine mammals to become a leader in a booming international trade.

Glazov is one of six members of a national fisheries board that sets quotas on catches of belugas and other sea creatures, and insists he's well aware that there are threatened beluga populations. He counters that Soviet-era and subsequent studies indicate the population in the Sea of Okhotsk from which Russia is capturing whales is "growing."

Glazov:

I would say the following: The capture of up to 100 beluga whales will definitely not have any impact [on the species' survival] as this issue has been studied several times both during the Soviet era and recently and the most important thing is that the population in this region is growing at the moment. They are doing well in contrast, for instance, to the population in Kamchatka. This is in the Okhotsk Sea, but from the direction of Kamchatka. There are belugas there, but they are not doing well -- which is why, for instance, I in my capacity as an expert, recommended that they at least halve the quota, which had been fairly high -- around 100. As far as the large quotas of 300 or 340 are concerned, I am of course in principle against it. But from the point of view of the law, as an expert I cannot oppose statistics on this because in order to argue a basis for reducing the quota, it would be necessary to carry out more large-scale research. Nonetheless, although this figure of 300 is frightening, it has never in recent times been reached. No one has managed to catch that many. It is physically and economically impossible at the moment.

Asked about conditions in captivity, Glazov cited his work with whales in and out of the wild. His answer is certain to anger opponents of captivity for highly developed animals like dolphins and belugas, many of whom say there's simply not enough data available to draw conclusions about comparative lifespans. (One former SeaWorld trainer said none of the animals he'd trained in the 1990s nor their offspring were still alive.)

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