Beluga Whale Import Request Draws Ire Of Animal Rights Activists
October 10, 2012

Beluga Whale Import Request Draws Ire Of Animal Rights Activists

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

An Atlanta-based aquarium is drawing criticism from animal rights advocates for their plans to import 18 beluga whales captured off the eastern coast of Russia.

The Georgia Aquarium--acting on behalf of several other marine life centers--has applied for a federal permit to import Arctic beluga whales, claiming that they need the creatures so that they can breed them in captivity, study them, and educate the public about the near-threatened species, according to New York Times reporter Felicity Barringer.

"Approval would end an import hiatus of nearly two decades that is rooted in misgivings about removing intelligent and social marine mammals from their native waters and their families," she explained. "Complicating matters, the federal government´s decision will be based not on bioethics but on the language of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which recognizes a benefit in winning the hearts and minds of paying customers who become attached to animals like the beluga, a facially expressive whale with a distinctive white hue."

According to information posted to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) website, the permit request, which was submitted by the aquarium on June 15, seeks the transfer of whales from the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station in Russia for the purpose of public display. Such a request is allowed under the MMPA, they note.

Even so, if the request is approved, it would be the first time in nearly two decades that these kinds of aquatic mammals had been imported into the US, reported Brandon Keim of Wired. Furthermore, animal rights activists argue that the benefits of studying and breeding the whales do not outweigh the negatives of forcing them to be raised in captivity.

“We know that they are intensely social mammals with complex and lengthy migrations, and that they use a whole bunch of different habitats in different times of the year, and that they are acoustic communicators,” Hal Whitehead, a marine mammal expert with Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, told the New York Times on Tuesday. “There is no way even the best captive situation has even the slightest approximation to that.”

Likewise, Emory University neuroscientist Lori Marino said that there was "no scientific purpose" for the aquariums to import the whales, and that the main purpose of bringing them in was to "keep people entertained."

Barringer reports that four of the parks petitioning to acquire the whales allow visitors to interact with them at a cost of $140 to $250, while a fifth (Shedd Aquarium in Chicago) allows people to schedule weddings that include the belugas.

Conversely, marine mammal biologist Randall Reeves told Wired that he believed there is "conservation potential" in allowing the whales to be imported. He said that it all "depends on the context, how they´re presented, and how well they´re taken care of. There are lots of examples of people who´ve been recruited to conservation by their exposure to animals in captivity. It can be heartbreaking to see it, but in some cases, you can argue that in the big picture it´s a good thing.”

"In human care in accredited scientific institutions like Georgia Aquarium, these animals receive the highest quality veterinary care, the most nutritious food and the love and dedication of animal care experts,” added the facility's communications officer, Scott Higley.

The NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) will hold a public hearing to discuss the permit request Friday, October 12, in Silver Spring, Maryland. Public comments will be accepted online until October 29, and to date, the organizations have received over 4,000 comments on the matter -- "most of them negative" and many of which "contain language drafted by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has encouraged its members to weigh in," according to Barringer.