U.S. marine parks trying to import wild beluga whales into life-long captivity

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To bypass our own Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Georgia Aquarium has petitioned the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) Fisheries Service to allow it to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales currently being held in Russia.

Sea World Parks, the largest marine park operator in the world, will most likely end up with up to 11 of those belugas as part of routine breeding-loan agreements, and Shedd Aquarium in Chicago has also signed on as part of the consortium looking to import free-born cetaceans into captivity in the United States for the first time in more than a decade.

These animals were all caught off the coast of Russia in the Sea of Okhotsk, where intensive hunting up until the 1960s left a struggling population still in the midst of recovery.

Citing the need for new breeding stock, the consortium of aquariums that stands to make a fortune off of the misfortune of these self-aware creatures – Sea World enjoyed a cool $1.3 billion in profits last year – claims that without fresh blood their captive populations will be genetically inept. Without captive populations, how will the public learn to appreciate their usefulness as circus clowns meant for human entertainment?

Somehow these groups are trying to convince us that the best thing we can do for animals struggling for recovery in the wild is to rip the healthy breeders from their families so we can peer at them in their concrete pens in miserable captivity.

If NOAA approves Georgia Aquarium’s application, these highly noise-sensitive white whales will endure the stress of traveling 6,000 miles, first to Belgium and then across the Atlantic, subjected to the roar of the cargo planes’ engines, and to being transferred from container to container and plane to plane.

It’s no wonder marine parks are willing to suffer the bad public relations that comes with importing these “prisoners.” Decades of attempts to run successful captive beluga breeding programs have largely failed, and without new, healthy animals stolen from the ocean, profits could suffer.

Earlier this year, Georgia Aquarium’s first captive-born beluga calf died at only one week old, despite round-the-clock veterinary care pre- and post-natal.

This is a common story for cetaceans in captivity. Contrary to our often-unquestioned belief in our ability to manufacture an improved reality, cetaceans actually have a much shorter lifespan in captivity than in the wild.

We’ve removed predators, the risk of starvation, provided an abundance of high-quality, nutritious food and veterinary care, and somehow these animals are unable to thrive. Belugas in the wild live between 50 and 60 years. Rather than wasting their lives chasing fish in the wild, we give them an actual job entertaining – err, educating us – and they have the audacity to die before they turn 30?

There’s a growing movement to free cetaceans from the concrete misery we’ve sentenced them to, as more scientists and individuals realize the extent of their intelligence, family bonds, culture and self awareness.

Earlier this week about 100 protesters stormed Marineland in Niagra Falls in an attempt to uneducate the families spending money to “educate” their children that despite all of our progress and technology as a species, we still choose to demonstrate our dominion over the weak by tearing sensitive creatures from their families and forcing them to live shortened lives so our kids can gawk at the majestic animals we’ve reduced to depressed prisoners.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, this same park currently imprisons 40 beluga whales in miserable conditions that could be imported to the Georgia Aquarium in lieu of the Russian belugas, but because of disagreements between the various parks’ management, a deal is impossible, reports the Eagle-Tribune.

Because of increased public scrutiny about importing these 18 wild-caught beluga whales, NOAA has extended its 30-day period for public comments to Oct. 29. You can submit your own comment here. NOAA provides a “Tips for Submitting Effective Comments” that’s worth taking a look at.

Also, check out this video by the Humane Society of the United States regarding catching cetaceans from the wild. It includes a piece showing two belugas caught in Russia.

  • Tina Page

    Tina is a journalist and mother of three who's lived all her life in the South Bay of Los Angeles except for a two-year stint in the heart of Spain. She believes humans have the capacity to make this a beautiful world for all species to live, and mothers have a special charge to raise their children to enjoy, love and respect all creatures.

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