A request by one of the United States’ biggest oceanariums to import 18 beluga whales caught in the Sea of Okhotsk off Russia has set off a debate over the legality and ethics of wild-animal captures for science and entertainment.
Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta wants eight males and 10 females, some of whom have been languishing in Russian facilities on the Black Sea for as long as six years, for a captive-breeding project that it claims will educate and inspire the public while helping ensure “the survival of belugas everywhere.”
Federal approval is required because the “take or import” of belugas and other marine mammals is banned under the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972.
Opponents of the plan see it as a threat to the moral underpinnings of the MMPA, legislation that was pushed by the scientific and conservation communities that has brought some mammal populations back from the brink of extinction. Collection of whales and dolphins from the wild for any purpose is a violation of conservation ethics. They say the permit application has everything to do with breeding more belugas for captivity, i.e. exhibition. While the capture of the animals was legal in Russia, and the import may be legal under a NOAA permit, this does not make it morally right and that NOAA should not allow US facilities to financially support a capture in another country’s waters
The plan calls for six of the whales to be housed in Atlanta, while the other 12 would go on “breeding loan” to the Georgia Aquarium’s partners: Sea World (in California, Florida, and Texas) and the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. All but four of North America’s current captive belugas are at those facilities.
It may be too late to help the belugas earmarked by the Georgia Aquarium. They have already been sucked into captivity. They will not be released by Russia, and if the US aquarium does not get its permit, they will be sold to other facilities outside of America.
Importing animals captured directly from the wild represents a significant departure from how US facilities have been acquiring whales and dolphins for public display over the past several decades, and is contrary to innovative and progressive trends within the aquarium community. Dolphin populations in US public display facilities have, in recent years, been maintained through captive breeding, imports, and the retention of stranded animals considered unsuitable for release back into the wild.
There have been no captures of wild dolphins in US waters since 1993, primarily because of public opposition and pressure.
If the aquarium succeeds, the belugas will become the first marine mammals caught in the wild and put on display in the United States since 1993.