American facilities want to import 18 of the marine mammals from Russia. Why is this so morally and legally fraught?
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."
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
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
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 DigitalJournal.com 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
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.
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."
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
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
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 and 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
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
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
@andy_heil Perhaps a limited role4 marine parks of th future used4 rehab/release. The ocean is impossible 2replicate 4 free ranging animals
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.