The Georgia Aquarium Plunders the Oceans in the Name of Conservation

By Lori Marino, Ph.D., Emory University Center for Ethics and The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, and Thomas I. White, Ph.D., Conrad N. Hilton Chair in Business Ethics, Loyola Marymount University.

On June 15th, the Georgia Aquarium quietly filed an application for a permit to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales from Russia into the United States. They plan to keep some of them for themselves and to distribute the rest among three SeaWorld facilities, the Shedd Aquarium and, eventually, the Mystic Aquarium and are receiving public comments on this issue until midnight October 29th at

The last time a U.S. aquarium took marine mammals directly from the wild was in 1993, when the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago set off a firestorm of protest by capturing some Pacific white-sided dolphins from California waters. Since then, in order to avoid pubic controversy over their profitable marine mammal entertainment programs, U.S. marine parks have abided by a self-imposed moratorium on the capture and import of wild marine mammals. Instead, they have focused on captive breeding to stock their pools and keep the shows going. In seeking to import 18 wild-caught belugas the Georgia Aquarium has abandoned the moratorium on taking wild dolphins and whales. If the import is approved, it will roll the clock back to an era when U.S. marine parks regularly removed wild dolphins, orcas, and whales from their families in the oceans to put them into shows.

The Georgia Aquarium says that the import is all about conservation. But the truth is that the import is about reinvigorating a stalled beluga captive breeding program in order to sustain and grow the population of popular belugas at U.S. marine parks. Currently, there are only 34 belugas in captivity in the United States. The 18 wild Russian belugas the Georgia Aquarium wants to import would push that number to above 50, infusing the existing captive population with new genes, and growing the population to a size that the Association of Zoos and Aquariums considers right for a successful captive breeding program.

Such “species survival programs” are justified on the basis of conservation. But, ironically, the beluga population in the Sea of Okhotsk from which the Georgia Aquarium 18 were captured is healthy (in fact, a condition for receiving an import permit is that the capture will not endanger the target population). In contrast, the longevity and survival of belugas is much more threatened in captive settings like the Georgia Aquarium, where programs to breed and sustain the beluga population have been unsuccessful.

Infant belugas fare very poorly when born into an artificial environment where their mothers lack the social support they would enjoy from sisters, aunts and friends in their natural setting. The last baby born at the Georgia Aquarium died at just a few days old. Overall, belugas in captivity lead more stressful and less healthy lives than their wild counterparts. The bottom line is that most captive breeding programs are not about conservation of animals in the wild; they’re about conservation of zoo and marine park profits.

Report on the NOAA Beluga Import Public Hearing

Last Friday, October 12th, at the public hearing held by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Silver Spring, MD, Kimmela Executive Director Lori Marino joined other researchers, legal experts, advocates and conservationists to present her objections to the Georgia Aquarium’s application to import wild-caught beluga whales for public display.

During the three-hour meeting, various individuals from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Georgia Aquarium, and Atlanta-based teachers affiliated with the aquarium testified to the educational benefits of marine mammal public displays and claimed that the welfare of the captured belugas would not be at risk during the multi-transfer plane transports from Russia to the United States.

Advocates for the belugas presented evidence that the wild-captures and transfers are inhumane and therefore in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).

Courtney Vail, Campaigns and Programs Manager for Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) testified that if the permit were granted to the Georgia Aquarium, it would set a dangerous precedent for future beluga populations.

“The Georgia Aquarium’s decision to seek wild belugas from Russia,” Vail told NOAA, “is at best regressive and at worst irresponsible in contributing to the continuing international trade in belugas, which undermines the conservation and welfare of this species worldwide.”

Vail went on to describe how the Georgia Aquarium has violated several conservation requirements put in place to prevent harm to the species in the wild.

Lori Marino addressed the question of whether there is educational value to beluga public displays. She emphasized that the Georgia Aquarium has not met the minimal requirements for education required by the MMPA and should be denied the permit on that basis alone.

“Despite the claims of the Georgia Aquarium that this beluga import will serve an educational purpose they have provided no legitimate evidence that any real education is taking place during visits to marine mammal public displays,” she said. “They, and their co-applicants, are not meeting the minimal standards set by the MMPA for education.”

Her full testimony is here.

Other presenters included Natalie Prosin, Executive Director of the Nonhuman Rights Project, who said that beluga whales are so cognitively and socially complex that they should be considered legal persons. She served notice in her testimony that the Nonhuman Rights Project is preparing to argue for legal personhood for several large-brained highly intelligent mammals, including belugas, in 2013.

Ric O’Barry, the former dolphin trainer and dolphin advocate for the past 30 years who is featured in the movie “The Cove”, said he was stunned that the Georgia Aquarium could even suggest that removing whales from a wild population, warehousing them for several years in pens, and then charging admission for people to see them promotes education and conservation.

O’Barry’s comments echoed the disbelief of all of the advocates about how the Georgia Aquarium could claim they have met the requirements of the MMPA.

The period of online public commentary continues until October 29th. There is still time to make a difference by going to to submit substantive arguments opposing the permit.