The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta has applied for a federal permit to import 18 beluga whales on behalf of a group of marine parks, saying the aquariums need the Arctic whales for captive breeding efforts, research and education. The proposal is drawing fierce opposition from animal rights advocates and others who object to their removal from the wild.

Beluga at Atlanta aquarium. (Photo: Greg Hume)

    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.

    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 white hued whale with a distinctive facially expression.

    Thirty-one beluga whales are now on display in the United States. Worldwide, a few hundred are thought to be in captivity.

    At least four of the nation’s largest marine parks, including the Georgia Aquarium, invite visitors to don wet suits and pet or be nuzzled by the animals for $140 to $250. The Shedd Aquarium in Chicago offers couples, for $450, a romantic wading experience that can culminate in a marriage proposal with Champagne, strawberries and the beluga as a chaperon. The other parks include the Shedd in Chicago, the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut and the Sea World parks in San Antonio, San Diego and Orlando, Florida.

    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration plans to hold a public hearing on the import proposal on Friday in Silver Spring, Md. A decision by its fisheries service is expected early next year.

    On reaching its decision, the agency will rely mainly on provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act that authorize such imports for public display unless the animal was pregnant or nursing when captured, was taken inhumanely or was part of a population that was depleted or endangered. The law also requires, among other things, that the display of the animal serve an educational purpose.

    The 18 whales were netted in forays in 2006, 2010 and 2011 in the Sea of Okhotsk off the Siberian coast from a robust population of 4,000 that plies those waters and is not viewed as endangered. (A population in Cook Inlet in Alaska is listed as endangered under federal law, however.) The 18 belugas are being housed at a research institution in the Black Sea town of Anapa, Russia.

    Marine institutions claim they need a strong captive population for research to help safeguard the beluga as its Arctic habitat is transformed by a changing climate.

    Critics say there is no demonstrable scientific purpose. That it is simply about keeping people entertained.

    Belugas are intensely social mammals with complex and lengthy migrations. They use many different habitats in different times of the year, and they are acoustic communicators. There is no way even the best captive situation has even the slightest approximation to that.

    The bottom line with the capture of any wild animal is that it breaks up family groups. A concrete pool will never be the open ocean.

    Source: New York Times