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A Welcomed and Somewhat Surprising Outcome: US Government Denies Russian Beluga Import

I must admit that despite my belief that the law was on our side on this one, providing NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) with the perfect opportunity to exercise its discretion with this controversial permit request, I am nonetheless a bit (albeit very pleasantly) surprised.  My personal reactions to the just days-old decision by NMFS to deny Georgia Aquarium’s request to import 18 belugas that were captured from the wild in Russia are colored by over a decade of involvement with the agency, as well as involvement with the issue of captivity.  The profundity of this action cannot be overstated. Having opposed and commented upon countless import permit applications that were ultimately ushered through the review and consent process with deference to the industry and with little apparent controversy, this one is obviously very different. 

This one is different not only because it represents a departure from how US facilities have been acquiring whales and dolphins for their collections over the past twenty years, but because a broad spectrum of stakeholders were, and continue to be, opposed to this import. It is very unseemly and unbecoming of the US public display industry to seek whales and dolphins for capture off of the coastline of the US, but it is legal to do so with certain exceptions. In fact, we know that some of the facilities involved in this application were looking to capture belugas in Alaska before they thought better of it and turned to the distant shores of Russia where beluga captures are commonplace and reliable—and where public controversy seemed equally as remote.  But despite the distance, and despite the shell game created by Georgia Aquarium to seek an import of belugas whose capture they commissioned primarily in 2010 and 2011, and attempted to justify later with research, it just doesn’t feel right, and for good reason.

The global demand for live whales and dolphins continues to threaten their health and welfare in the wild, and with the denial of this permit, NMFS has recognized this threat and endorsed public sentiment against this activity.  The removal of live whales and dolphins from the wild for captive display is equivalent to deliberate killing, as the animals are no longer available to help maintain their natural populations. Captures are violent, and may cause distress, physical harm, and even death to not only those animals captured, but for the ones left behind. In addition, the stress of transport may result in injury or death. And finally, removal for captivity represents a different form of death for these animals—a permanent life of sensory, social and physical deprivation in concrete pools.

Regardless of whether whales or dolphins are taken from the wild or not, the very existence of public display ensures a cruel and unfortunate existence for the ones that find their way into concrete tanks through capture, laundering or breeding loans.  Albeit more controversial,  this permit request is actually no different than any other—it ultimately forces us to confront our continuing justifications for captivity, and evaluate the costs associated with it.  We have made the same arguments over and over regarding the vicious cycle of supply and demand that is sustained by captive facilities and their perpetual trade in whales and dolphins–but it took this permit request to legitimize our claims. As long as captive populations are not self-sustaining, and they are not, facilities will continue to look either to the wild, or to other facilities’ faltering captive breeding programs to feed their demand.  And because of this, and the increasing awareness of the other realities associated with the captivity of whales and dolphins, I think that it is starting to just not feel right for a majority of the public.

NMFS made the right decision. Ultimately, the permit was denied because the facts were on our side:  the research underpinning the justification for this permit was lacking; the management of the populations where these belugas were taken in Russia is inadequate to protect them from the continuing assault of increasing capture quotas to supply the international aquarium industry; and the Georgia Aquarium simply failed to demonstrate that this import is consistent with the requirements of the US Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).  We have claimed from the beginning that the Aquarium did not meet permitting requirements under the MMPA on a number of grounds, and NMFS agreed, effectively unveiling the Aquarium’s attempts to paint entertainment as conservation.

Contrary to what the Aquarium and its partners claimed, the permit does not support conservation, but rather significantly jeopardizes protection of belugas in the wild by perpetuating and instigating ongoing captures for display facilities. Even more appalling, vulnerable and depleted populations were targeted by these captures, including nursing mothers and dependent calves.  Through its decision, the government revealed its concern not only for the conservation of belugas, but also their individual welfare, and placed the burden of proof back on the Georgia Aquarium to justify its activities, exactly where the burden should be.

Georgia Aquarium, in its over-confident presumption that its permit request would be rubber-stamped by NMFS, underestimated not only the provisions of the law, but also the discernment of the public to know the difference between true conservation and exploitation. By cloaking its capture efforts in foreign waters under the name of conservation and education in the hopes of evading scrutiny, Georgia Aquarium failed in its attempts to hide its complicity in the international trade in belugas.

Considering the obstinacy of the captivity industry, I would not be surprised if the Aquarium challenged this permit decision through legal action. But I am not sure a lawsuit will work in its favor.  In this current climate of heightened awareness and increasing opposition to the continuing confinement of whales and dolphins in captivity, Georgia Aquarium and its partners must take a hard look at their captive breeding programs and acknowledge that this is literally a dying industry whose time has come. 

We continue to call for a phase out of whale and dolphin captivity, and a transformation of these facilities into true education and conservation institutions.  We call upon all public display facilities to permanently halt future collection or acquisition of whales and dolphins from the wild for any purpose. Some aquariums have already headed in that direction by issuing statements against such activity. And now, the US Government has broken ground in a positive direction towards discouraging this type of behavior from the industry by drawing a firm line in the sand that acquisition from the wild for public display is not only undesirable, it is a threat to the protection and conservation of belugas.

It has been an extremely long road for many of us who have been opposing the whale and dolphin captivity industry for a very long time. But to finally hear the words of acknowledgement by the government that the demand generated and sustained by captivity is a threat to whales and dolphins in the wild? It just may change everything.

Unfortunately, the fate of these 18 belugas remains unclear. There are many tentacles to this sordid trade. Although this decision may work to end a portion of the trade in wild-captured belugas by blocking US sources of demand, the capture and trade will continue as long as annual capture quotas are approved and international buyers await fulfillment of their orders. And as long as we choose to participate in this industry and patronize facilities that hold whales and dolphins captive, we too are complicit. Although WDC calls for the rehabilitation and release of these belugas to native waters if feasible, the possibility for their recapture guarantees that a final solution will be politically and practically complex.   

Because the permit decision may still be challenged by the Georgia Aquarium within the US legal system, a coalition of plaintiffs, including WDC, stand prepared to continue to fight this ill-conceived effort to import wild-captured belugas. We seek an end to the further acquisition of whales and dolphins from the wild for captivity and permanent sanctuary for those that remain. 

WDC commends NMFS’s decision which not only complies with the letter and spirit of the law, but exercises precautionary discretion by refusing to participate in the global capture and trade that has led to the untold suffering and devastation within whale and dolphin communities worldwide that have been targeted for capture, transport, and a permanent life in confinement.   And we thank them for that.