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Feds Deny Georgia Aquarium Permit to Import 18 Beluga Whales

Lucrative US captive marine mammal market barred to the beluga hunters for now

Yesterday, the US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) denied Georgia Aquarium’s request for a permit to import 18 beluga whales caught in the wild in Russia citing “requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).”

The whales were destined for several aquariums in the US, including the three SeaWorld facilities and the Shedd Aquarium.

Had the Fisheries Service approved the import, it would have been the first time in 20 years that marine mammals caught in the wild would have been shipped over to supply these sea circuses, with tremendous financial benefits to the aquariums involved in the deal.

Belugaphoto by Bill Liao, on Flickr

“NMFS has a long history of simply rubber-stamping any proposals for imports, exports, or moving around whales and dolphins in captivity, at the behest of the billion dollar captive industry. Those days may be over for the industry. The jig is up,” Ric O’Barry, Director of Earth Island’s Dolphin Project, said in response to the news. “The public is finally speaking out against this abusive industry, and NMFS is finally paying attention to public opinion.”

The Fisheries Service had received nearly 9,000 comments on the proposed import, the vast majority of which opposed the import permits.

This does not necessarily end the tale. The Georgia Aquarium could sue the federal government. Alternatively, they could re-submit the proposal in some way to get around the objections raised by the Fisheries Service.

But the Fisheries Service scientists and lawyers were very careful in how they framed the reasons for their denial. They cited the depleted status of the beluga whales in Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk where they have been  over-harvested for food and, more recently, for sale to captive facilities around the world. (On a recent trip to Taiji, Japan, Earth Island’s Cove Monitor Terran Baylor photographed several beluga whales at the Dolphin Base resort. They were likely imported from Russia!)

The Fisheries Service stated that the import permit for the beluga would likely increase pressure on the wild beluga population by encouraging other aquariums around the world to get their own belugas for display. Furthermore, it said, that at least five of the belugas proposed for import were likely of an age where they were still dependent on their mothers for milk, a violation of the US Marine Mammal Protection Act. In all, the Fisheries Service statement against the import was very strong, and a legal challenge is likely to fail.

Ric O’Barry had testified at the public hearing against the proposed import of beluga, and Earth Island’s International Marine Mammal Project worked closely with a coalition of groups, including Animal Welfare Institute, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Cetacean Society International, and Heritage Expeditions Limited – a well known ecotourism company, to prepare a lawsuit in case the Fisheries Service had approved Georgia Aquarium’s permit.

“(Issuance of the permit) would have given this live capture industry an effective US endorsement for the unsustainable and expanding international trade in live-captured beluga whales and other cetaceans, Many such whales go to public display facilities around the world with little or no expertise in caring for these animals,” Jonathan Turley, the coalition’s pro-bono attorney, said in a statement yesterday.

“While we still have 18 beluga whales being held in abusive conditions in Russia, the decision today will protect this species from further depletions by denying the US market for such captive whales,” said Turley, who is director of the Environmental Law Advocacy Center at George Washington University.  

Earth Island and its coalition partners, along with Dr. Turley and his legal staff, will continue to follow this issue. If the Georgia Aquarium decides to sue the Fisheries Service over this permit, the coalition will likely work to intervene on behalf of the beluga whales.

While our preference would be that these 18 belugas, now being held in tanks near the Black Sea in Russia, be returned to their families and home, it is more likely they will be sold to another overseas aquarium. But the lucrative US captive marine mammal market is, at least for now, barred to the beluga hunters.

Take the pledge: Don’t buy a ticket to a dolphin or whale show!

Mark J. Palmer
Mark J. Palmer is Associate Director of the International Marine Mammal Project.

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