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October 15, 2012

The Cruel Trade in Beluga Whales Needs to End

On Friday, the National Marine Fisheries Service held a public hearing for a permit application by Atlanta’s Georgia Aquarium to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales from Russia. Educators, researchers, a former SeaWorld trainer, animal advocates, homemakers, a TV producer, a pilot, lawyers, and social workers spoke out against the import request.

Beluga whales swimming
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The Humane Society of the United States’ Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist, and several others speaking against the permit focused on aspects of the import proposal that will violate the law, or run counter to sound conservation principles. The rest spoke passionately and personally about their belief that confining these magnificent white whales in small tanks thousands of miles from their Arctic home is inhumane and wrong.

The speakers favoring the proposal came principally from the zoo and aquarium community—employees of the Georgia Aquarium, the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, or the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, as well as several Atlanta educators. Most of these speakers seemed to think this was a referendum on the public display of whales and dolphins—they focused on the Aquarium’s education program, the bond people form with the belugas at the facility, and all the other supposed practical benefits of people connecting with wildlife in an urban setting. They omitted mention of the whales languishing in a holding facility on the Black Sea, where they were sent after their capture—4,000 miles from their home in the Sea of Okhotsk. And they did not address the trauma the whales suffered by being wrestled away from their family groups by men wielding nets and ropes, oblivious and uncaring of the social bonds being destroyed.

Make no mistake: this import proposal is not about the Georgia Aquarium’s research or public education. It is not about the value of zoos and aquariums to society. It is not even—sadly enough—about the 18 whales in Russia. Those animals were doomed to a life in captivity as soon as they were captured at the request of the Georgia Aquarium—if they don’t come to the United States, they will go somewhere else, like China, Egypt, or Turkey.

This import proposal is really about the trade in live whales from the Sea of Okhotsk, a region also affected by unsustainable hunting and climate change. It is about the capture of 21 belugas on average every year from this population since 2000 (that’s more than 250 whales) by a company that doesn’t care who its customers are or whether it is decimating beluga families by conducting its captures in the same location year after year. It is about the hundreds of whales who might be saved in the years ahead from a similar fate if we can stop this trade.

The United States must not become a market for these whales. It’s about global supply and demand, and the only way we get these captures to stop is to shut down purchases of these animals. The HSUS’s international arm, Humane Society International, is working in China to end the demand for live belugas there. We must ask the same of the United States, which has not allowed imports of marine mammals deliberately captured for public display by U.S. facilities for more than two decades.

The Georgia Aquarium and its partners in this application, SeaWorld and the John G. Shedd and Mystic Aquariums, have become part of the problem by buying these 18 whales. They have attempted to cast this inhumane decision as an act of conservation, but the National Marine Fisheries Service must not allow this self-serving rationale to prevail. We as a nation, and the zoo and aquarium industry in particular, must hit the reset button and begin to exhibit a zero-tolerance policy for capturing and trading whales for captive display.

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