Beluga by Neil Remiesiewicz small

In an almost unbelievable turn of events, bearing in mind the global hoo-ha surrounding the release of the documentary ‘Blackfish’ and the resulting condemnation towards keeping whales and dolphins in captivity emanating from ordinary, erstwhile SeaWorld fans as well as die hard activists (and it seems an increasing number of recording artists…), the Georgia Aquarium (GA) has chosen now to start a public-facing campaign to overturn the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) decision not to allow it and a constortium of other marine parks including SeaWorld, to import 18 wild caught beluga whales to the US for ‘breeding purposes’.

SeaWorld in the meantime, is attempting to counteract the Blackfish backlash by taking out full page ads with an open letter in prominent newspapers and undertaking a full scale crisis PR management exercise, claiming ‘Due to the groundbreaking success in our research into marine mammal reproduction, we haven’t collected a killer whale from the wild in 35 years.”

Following the refusal of the permit, the aquarium took the case to court and filed a lawsuit in the US on 30 September. In theory, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) had 60 days from that date to respond — an end-of-November deadline that in theory wasn’t affected by the government shutdown.

Now the GA has ramped up their campaign a notch – possibly because the case didn’t go their way although we have no confirmation of this. It is now encouraging the public to send a letter to the U.S. Department of Commerce (as there is no legal right of appeal direct to NOAA/NMFS) asking it to force a reversal of the original decision and grant the import permit.  (Background and letter text is below).

The GA try and explain away their insistence that the import permit should be allowed by saying, “with fewer than 35 belugas in accredited aquariums in North America, this population of animals in human care is facing certain extinction”.

Frankly, if the population of beluga whales in human care is facing extinction, that’s a good thing in my book.

There are plenty of species facing extinction in the wild – on land and in the oceans – that should be saved and whilst it is possible to try and save a land-based species through captive breeding programmes, this should only ever be a truly last resort. But it is not possible or humane to try and attempt it with cetaceans.

I don’t believe the ocean habitat can possibly be replicated naturally enough for it to be either successful in saving an entire species or humane enough to be remotely acceptable. The whole premise precludes any future release into the wild of captive bred animals with any likelihood of long term success and surely that has to be required of any rescue operation?

Renowned marine mammal scientist for the Animal Welfare Institute, Dr Naomi Rose, has eloquently talked of how she believes facilities like SeaWorld can work with experts around the world to create sanctuaries where captive orcas can be rehabilitated and retired (…). I believe this is the only acceptable future for commercial operations like the Georgia Aquarium that will allow them to continue to operate.

The only reason the GA and their fellow consortium members, Sea World Theme Parks in Orlando, San Diego, and Texas, the Shedd Aquarium, Chicago; and Mystic Aquarium, Connecticut, want these beluga whales is to increase stocks of animals that will remain within their facilities throughout their lifetimes.

There is no rationale any of their experts could put forward that will persuade me that what they propose will benefit wild beluga whales in Russia, Alaska or anywhere else.

Within the appeal letter, the GA state, ‘In spite of the great success in breeding belugas, there’s still much researchers don’t know about beluga whales – and so much they still need to learn”. Note, the GA don’t say ‘In spite of their great success in breeding belugas’…

According to their own website, “Georgia Aquarium’s Georgia-Pacific Cold Water Quest gallery has been home to beluga whales since the Aquarium opened its doors in 2005”. What it doesn’t tell you is that of the seven beluga whales they have ‘cared for’ since then, three have died, two within two years of arriving via other facilities and one within six days of being born there.

In fact, the GA has never successfully bred a beluga whale. All their surviving beluga whales were bred in other facilities. For example Beethoven was born in SeaWorld Antonia in 1992, transported to SeaWorld California in 1997, then to Point Defiance Zoo near Seattle in 1998. From there, Beethoven was sent to SeaWorld Texas and only in 2010 was he transferred to the GA.

Within SeaWorld parks across the US, 40 belugas have died in captivity including 3 newborns dead within a week, 3 within two months of birth, four still born and two within two years of birth; at the Shedd Aquarium which has seven living belugas, nine have died including five calves captive born that died within a month of birth or were still born; and at Mystic Aquarium – which has never bred a beluga in captivity and which holds four living belugas, seven adult belugas have died – all of which were originally wild captures.

In a statement on their website that almost beggars belief, the GA attempt to explain how “Important relationships between animal and caregiver in our facilities help foster better experimental designs resulting in data that are much more likely to reflect behavioral and physiological conditions in wild populations”.

If I’m reading that right, it’s a bit like saying let’s take healthy, happy kids into care and away from their parents, allow strangers to enforce unnatural behaviours on them so that we can find out more about how ordinary families behave. I’m not sure that stacks up.

The GA continue their plea to overturn NOAA’s decision by blackmailing the man on the Clapham Omnibus and the mum with her kids by saying that, “there is simply not enough genetic diversity to promote healthy breeding, meaning that within a few decades, according to experts, the public will lose touch with these magnificent mammals.”

Whilst not everyone will have seeing a live beluga whale on their or their children’s bucket list, it is an emotive plea. Who wouldn’t want an opportunity to see a whale or dolphin up close in their lifetime if humanely possible?

The truth is, it isn’t humanly possible to see a beluga whale, an orca, a dolphin, porpoise or any other marine mammal displayed in a man-made enclosure that can never replicate their natural habitat. There is nothing humane about that.

I don’t believe it’s a divine right as a human being to see any wild animal up close and personal. Pretty much every single being on the GA and the other marine park’s target list of consumers has easy access to the internet these days and therefore, a wealth of educational materials on cetaceans freely available to them.

Given the exorbitant cost of a ticket to a marine park, it would be better for mums, dads, courting couples, and whale and dolphin lovers of all ages to save up and head for the coast if you feel you must see a whale or die.

To see a wild cetacean in the ocean remains – as it should be – something incredibly special to be saved up for, savoured and never forgotten. Luckily it is becoming easier with an increase in the availability of reputable wild whale and dolphin watching businesses around the globe.

People no longer need to see animals in tanks or behind bars to learn about them. As all advocates of anti-captivity know, the only thing learned by observing captive animals is how they behave in captivity.

However, as long as commercial companies like the GA, SeaWorld and others trade and deal with companies that take wild cetaceans from the oceans and sell them into captivity, and as long as ordinary people go on believing that the only place they will ever see a whale or dolphin is in a marine park, wild populations of cetaceans will be under threat.

That is an added pressure they do not need, bearing in mind deep sea oil drilling; exploration in the arctic, man-made and natural pollution, marine traffic, fishing bycatch and direct targeting through dolphin drives and commercial whaling.

This week in New Zealand, the world’s largest gathering of marine mammal experts met to discuss, amongst other things (like the humane killing of marine mammals – more on that later), the issue of Scientific studies of captive and free living killer whales. In other words, whether or not it’s okay to take orcas from the wild for the entertainment industry in return for any significant research results.

Eric Hoyt has an interesting perspective on the topic and it seems timely (perhaps they are concerned about the Oscars shortlist drawing even more attention to what their fellow consortium members have been up to?) that the GA should choose now to begin their proactive campaign to import wild caught belugas.…

Blackfish has been an unbelievable boost to all those who have been campaigning against cetaceans in captivity and with award nomination stacking up left, right and centre, it looks as though things ca only get better.

Whilst the documentary itself focuses on orcas – or rather one orca in particular – if ever there was a time to step things up and ensure that the GA’s request for a permit to import any wild caught cetaceans from anywhere for any purpose is refused, it is now.

By all means, fill in the form on the GA website but please, add your own comments below their text and ask the US Department of Commerce to uphold NOAA’s decision. You can screen-capture your edited message and email to which is collecting submissions to forward to the US DOC.

You can also email or write direct to:
The Honorable Penny Pritzker, Secretary
U.S. Department of Commerce
1401 Constitution Ave., NW Washington, D.C. 20230, USA

Photo: (c) Neil Remiesiewicz

Facebook event page: #NoBelugaImport – We DO NOT support Georgia Aquarium