Whale Washing the Import of Wild-Caught Belugas

Posted by Jenni James, ALDF's Litigation Fellow on October 30, 2012

Captive beluga at SeaWorld San Diego (Photo by Martin Wippel)

In a desperate attempt to resuscitate a dying industry, the Georgia Aquarium recently asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for a permit to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales from the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station in Russia. If granted, this will be the first time the United States has approved the intentional capture of a marine mammal for display since 1993.

Although 45 million people visit aquaria each year, supporting the display industry with their dollars, wild capture is politically unpopular. More than 7,000 people commented on the Aquarium’s permit application. All but a handful urged NOAA to deny the Aquarium’s request. Critics had a number of issues to choose from. Some argued that the capture methods were inhumane, in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Watch part one and part two of the documentary, “Dolphin’s Way,” and you can judge for yourself. Others argued that the data supporting the sustainability of the beluga capture was flawed, again making the capture illegal. There were political arguments (encouraging wild capture undercuts the American stance against willing) and ethical ones (captivity is cruel, wild capture destroys complex social structures). Together these comments suggest that the tide is turning against keeping whales and dolphins on display. Anticipating this impending outrage, the Aquarium’s application argued preemptively that this type of opposition could not amount to a legally significant public controversy, which, under the National Environmental Policy Act, would subject their permit application to heightened agency scrutiny.

Despite this overwhelming response, there is a real risk that the Aquarium’s permit may be granted. While wild capture is becoming taboo, the government generally approves applications to import already captive marine mammals.

Given this trend, it is no surprise that the Aquarium’s application emphasized the fact that these belugas were taken in to captivity in 2005, 2006, and 2011. At the same time, the Aquarium downplayed the millions of dollars it paid to facilitate the capture of these belugas. Rather than commission the captures directly, the Aquarium studied the size and make up of the Russian beluga populations to generate the data required to satisfy the international standards governing the export of this protected species.

Baltic Sea in Russia  (Photo by Maks Karochkin)

The Aquarium’s application is a classic case of “whale washing.” Just as criminals launder dirty money through legitimate businesses, American aquaria distance themselves from the stink of direct capture by importing wild-caught animals from foreign, often substandard, facilities. Rather than look like the villains they are, the American aquaria appear to be heroes, “rescuing” marine mammals from crowded conditions.

Indeed, the 18 once-wild belugas now languish in a crowded “research facility.” If not imported to America, they face the real risk of being sold for display–or even consumption–in emerging markets such as India or China. Tragically, the future of these 18 belugas is grim either way. If NOAA approves the Aquarium’s permit, however, more belugas will be at risk, as the Aquarium’s purchase provides incentive to the Russian capture industry to remove more belugas from their waters.

Incredibly, the Aquarium insists that the import of these animals will have no impact on the wild stock. In doing so, they deny the simple economic reality that supply rises to meet demand. In this case, the Aquarium is asking to purchase 18 belugas. The Russians capture, on average, only 22 belugas per year. This means the Aquarium’s purchase is sufficient to sustain the Russian capture industry for most of a year. Worse still, the Aquarium makes no secret of its plan to continue to conduct studies of Russian belugas, setting the stage for future import permit applications.

The Aquarium insists these belugas are required to “enhance the North American breeding cooperative” by increasing the size of the captive population to a “self-sustaining level.” In reality, these animals will not enhance the captive breeding population, they will replace it. The captive breeding experiment has proved an utter failure. In the last 20 years, only 24 belugas have been born in American aquaria. During the same period, 27 belugas have died, many within days or months of their birth. As a result, most of America’s 34 captive belugas are beyond childbearing age. All told, just about half of all the belugas ever held in captivity in America have died. This rate of loss is not sustainable by anyone’s standards. Captive breeding is an incredibly wasteful, incredibly cruel experiment, which should be extinguished, not “enhanced.”

Of course whale washing is not unique to belugas. Other marine mammals also find themselves laundered into American aquaria. For instance, a juvenile orca named Morgan is currently at risk of becoming the next transatlantic “rescue.” Morgan had the misfortune of being separated from her pod and stranding off the coast of the Netherlands in 2010. Although the government granted a permit for her rescue and rehabilitation, she was quickly placed on display in a dolphin tank at the Dolfinarium Harderwijk. While Morgan’s supporters were hard at work developing a release plan and locating her wild pod, others were lobbying to keep her in captivity. Loro Parque, a Spanish aquarium stocked with orcas from SeaWorld’s collection, argued that Morgan should be transferred to their facility, where they had larger pools and experiencing working with orcas.

Loro Parque is far from a haven for orcas. It was there that an orca named Keto killed his trainer in 2009, just two months before Tilikum killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, at SeaWorld’s Orlando location. Despite this gruesome history, a Dutch judge decided that any orca tank was an improvement over Morgan’s isolation in a dolphin tank. This Thursday, November 1, 2012, an appeals court will finally revisit the decision to transfer Morgan to Loro Parque. Thanks to the tireless work of her supporters, they will review evidence of the repeated violent attacks Morgan suffers from Loro Parque’s other orcas. You can view the evidence yourself. If the judges decide to leave Morgan in Loro Parque, it will only be a matter of time before she is transferred to one of SeaWorld’s American locations. Of course, SeaWorld will claim they are “saving” Morgan from the relentless attacks of these other orcas, while downplaying the fact that they created these animals and sent them overseas when they proved too unruly and dangerous.

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5 thoughts on “Whale Washing the Import of Wild-Caught Belugas

  1. Diane Bushby says:

    This is disgusting and should be stopped. Animals are not here for our entertainment!!! I would rather my childrens children see these animals in the wild where they should be rather than in some tank swimming around and around, or doing tricks for these people to make money from.

  2. Tory says:

    Was this permit granted?

  3. Jenni James says:

    The permit has not been granted yet. The folks at NOAA are still reading through the nearly 9,000 comments they received. They hope to make a decision by the end of January or early February.

  4. lauren Russell says:

    I think this website would be a lot more effecient if it included a ‘point and click approach’. Please check out NRDC’d website. It is very easy to manuever; they have an automatic address you can send to and a sample letter you can send as is or amend to your liking.

  5. Marta says:

    I agree with the comment about “point and click” – these articles are wonderfully informative, but it would be really helpful to let us know what we can. Even if the comment period is closed regarding the permit. How about writing the Georgia Aquarium? How can we take action? Reading this was horrifying and I would do something right now – if I knew what that was besides forwarding it to friends. Let’s look at more ways to take action…

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