Georgia Aquarium Seeks Permit to Import Wild-Caught Belugas

Cover photo: In a beluga whale transport similar to what the Georgia Aquarium plans, four belugas are being transported from Russia to China’s Huangzhou Polar Ocean Park for a life in captivity.

Next month, a federal government agency will decide whether the Georgia Aquarium should be granted a permit to bring 18 beluga whales from Russian waters to the United States. The aquarium, which is based in Atlanta and is the largest in the nation, captured most of the whales 12-24 months ago in the Sea of Okhotsk and is holding them at the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station on the Russian Black Sea coast.

belugas santa-091612The Georgia Aquarium plans to keep some of these wild-caught belugas for themselves and to distribute the rest among three SeaWorld facilities, the Shedd Aquarium and, eventually, the Mystic Aquarium.

The last time a U.S. aquarium took marine mammals directly from the oceans was in 1993, when the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago captured some Pacific white-sided dolphins from California waters, setting off a public outcry that resulted in U.S. marine parks deciding not to take any more marine mammals from the wild for their displays.

(For a video of a similar capture by another country in 1999 go here.)

But this year, on June 15th, when the Georgia Aquarium applied for a permit to bring those 18 belugas to this country, that tacit agreement was shattered. If the Georgia Aquarium gets its way and receives a permit, this will open the floodgates for marine zoos, circuses, parks and aquariums to capture belugas from Alaska, dolphins from the Atlantic, and whales from the Pacific.

Since this is a controversial issue, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which is in charge of giving such permits, opened a period of public commentary on this issue which ends on October 29th. A public hearing in Washington DC is scheduled for October 12th, and Dr. Lori Marino of the Kimmela Center expects to be present.

And Kimmela is working to bring the voice of the scientific community to this issue by collaborating with Humane Society International (HSI) and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) to create a Scientists’ Statement outlining the scientific reasons for opposing this import application and undersigned by some of the most prominent scientists in the world.

Last week, Dr. Naomi Rose, Senior Scientist of HSI, was in Atlanta to join Dr. Lori Marino of the Kimmela Center in a public presentation about the beluga issue at Emory University’s Center for Ethics.

Kimmela is also assisting local animal rights groups in Georgia by providing them with relevant peer-reviewed papers on belugas and the claims of the captivity industry and disseminating talking points to help these groups make their case. These materials include:

A critical evaluation, by Dr. Marino and other scientists, of educational claims made by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums: “Do Zoos and Aquariums Promote Attitude Change in Visitors? A Critical Evaluation of the American Zoos and Aquariums Study.”

A study of the brain of beluga whales by Dr. Marino and other scientists: Anatomy and Three-Dimensional Reconstructions of the Brain of the White Whale (Delphinapterus leucas) from Magnetic Resonance Images.

A historical record and inventory of beluga whales in captivity.

A comprehensive list of talking points and background by Dr. Naomi Rose of Humane Society International.

Kimmela also provided scientific background for a series of posts, Barnum and Belugas, exploring our relationship over the centuries with belugas by board member Michael Mountain on his Earth in Transition website.

And this post by Elizabeth Batt offers more background into the beluga captivity industry.

The government agency NOAA invites your comments on its website page devoted to the Georgia Aquarium’s application for a permit. The public hearing will be held on October 12, 2012, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the NOAA Silver Spring Metro Center Complex, NOAA Science Center, 1301 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910.

2 Replies to “Georgia Aquarium Seeks Permit to Import Wild-Caught Belugas”

  1. Dear ones,

    I am terribly confused. This is a critically endangered species, how can live capture be legal under the IUCN and CITES?

    This seems to me to be illegal wildlife trade in the name of big corporate business? I am terribly saddened. Can anyone educate us on what loop hole exists that is allowing this?


    1. Dear Kelly,

      This is an excellent question. The answer is that the population of beluga whales from which these 18 were taken is not endangered. They are healthy and the IUCN determined that taking from this population is sustainable within certain limits. Russia takes from this population annually and the 18 whales taken by the Georgia Aquarium fit into that quota.


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