On June 15, the Georgia Aquarium applied for a permit to import 18 wild-caught Russian beluga whales. The 18 belugas were captured in 2006, 2010, and 2011. All of them are currently residing in captivity at Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station in Russia. They will be owned by the Georgia Aquarium, but 15 of them will be split and transferred to other parks on breeding loan. (All 3 SeaWorld parks, Mystic Aquarium, and Shedd Aquarium.)
“Although the precise numbers and identification of which whales will be transported to each facility is unknown at this time, the final disposition of the whales will be designed to best manage and grow the population of captive beluga whales in North America.”- Georgia Aquarium Permit for Beluga Import
Belugas begin to mature at age six, which is when their skin turns from gray to white. They are fully mature by age 13. According to the permit’s graph, ten of the belugas bought by Georgia Aquarium were captured when they were still calves under the age of three. Five of those were only 1.5 years old. Since belugas are weaned at about 1-1.5 years, at capture these 10 calves were either not yet weaned, or had just been weaned only a few months earlier. Seven of the beluga were captured between the ages of 4-5. Only one adult, age nine, was captured. Today, the majority of the belugas are juveniles between 3 and 5 years old. “To put your mind at ease, none of these belugas are juveniles. They are all of adult age.”- Georgia Aquarium to the concerned public. If you’re interested in the Russian method of capture that was used to acquire these 18 animals, check out this video.
After capture, the animals were placed into a shore-side pen that is 40’x40′ and 8′ deep for a total of two months. There, a trainer fed and worked with the belugas to condition them to a life controlled by humans in captivity. After they become acclimated to human contact, the belugas are transported. Marine mammals are not fed 12 hours before, or during transport to prevent the animals from vomiting in their travel containers.
“…the purpose of the permit activity—to import for public display 18 wild beluga whales collected in Sakhalin Bay in the Sea of Okhotsk—is to promote conservation and education and to enhance the North American beluga breeding cooperative by increasing the population base of captive beluga whales to a self-sustaining level.” – Georgia Aquarium’s Permit for Beluga Import
A population must have at least 50 members to provide enough genetic diversity to support future generations. This idea of supplementing and enhancing captive breeding programs to a level of self-sustaininability isn’t going to stop with the import of these 18 belugas. Captive killer whales are the pride and joy of the captivity industry, but with less than 50 members, the population is not yet self-sustaining. There is a great possibility that “supplemental” capture of orcas will take place in the near future in order to support orca captivity. This is especially true if the public and the government is accepting of Georgia Aquarium’s beluga import.
“Through programs at the Georgia Aquarium and all other AMMPA facilities, visitors interact and experience marine mammals and belugas in a way that teaches them about the ocean environment and motivates them toward conservation actions.”- Georgia Aquarium Permit for Beluga Import
Of course captivity has never proven to be a prerequisite for conservation efforts. In fact, it is argued that captivity works against conservation and education by putting a wall between “the wild” and marine park visitors, thereby convincing the public that the animals are safe and thriving in an artificial environment. The weak educational value of Georgia Aquarium’s facility
is noted at the end of the permit with photo-copied letters written by young visitors to the park. The kids mention that the belugas’ tricks were “entertaining,” and that they had “blubber and a blowhole.” It’s clear that the educational content of the shows and displays is kept at an elementary level and is hardly extensive enough to warrant the captivity of these animals, as all facts learned by visitors do not require beluga captivity and may be obtained elsewhere.
Many captivity supporters have made various argument excusing these actions by Georgia Aquarium:“We can’t know where they [belugas] would have gone if we had not chosen to work to acquire and import them…” – Georgia Aquarium to a concerned public.
“They [belugas] probably would have ended…up going to non-accredited places if GA didn’t take them anyways. ” anonymous
In their permit, Georgia Aquarium offers several alternatives to their import of these 18 Russian belugas. One of these alternatives is directly capturing from other wild populations. The fact that Georiga Aquarium says they have worked to “acquire AND import” the belugas, indicates that they may have had a hand in the actual capture of these animals, not just the importation. It is very clear that Georgia Aquarium is not just focused on importation, but is actively condoning wild marine mammal capture.
The argument that the animals may have gone to a worse facility had Georgia Aquarium not stepped in, is probably true, but it works against captivity and the Georgia Aquarium, not for it. More cetaceans will be captured by these Russians and sold to un-regulated and possibly abusive facilities, all with the help of Georgia Aquarium and those who support their actions (Shedd Aquarium, Mystic Aquarium, and SeaWorld). This is why it does not matter whether the permit was for import or capture. Georgia Aquarium’s money, which comes from the tourist, is helping to keep these people in business. A few captivity supporters have refused to beat around the bush so to speak, and have openly condoned wild capture altogether in order to support the decisions of their favorite marine parks and aquariums. One such supporter says:
“I feel capturing is part of captivity…As long as the wild population is not harmed and no animal is stressed to the point of death during the capture (which is not the case with these beluga captures), then I don’t really see a huge problem with it.” – Anonymous
However, if you have any problems with this capture of wild cetaceans, please feel free to leave a comment here on the Federal Register.