In yet another bad press item this summer for SeaWorld, a young beluga, “Bella,” died after a brief and unknown illness. This sad and premature death reflects the unhappy fate of many belugas held in oceanariums around the world. Belugas, like orcas, are a highly social and intelligent species, and do not fare well when confined to small tanks. Although recent media buzz has focused on “Blackfish,” “Death at SeaWorld,” and captive orcas in general, belugas face similar issues – they are a social species that have remarkable site fidelity (individuals return to the same areas year after year), amazing echolocation skills, and an enormously diverse vocal repertoire; and are thus very sensitive to sound. They are also top-level predators that play important roles in the overall health of their environment.
In captivity, they experience shorter lifespans, boredom, sensory deprivation, and disruption of their social structure. Instead of naturally occurring associations and groups, they are put into whatever assemblages are created by the oceanarium industry. Attempts to breed belugas in captivity have been unsuccessful, as shown by the death of Bella at the young age of 4 – the loss of young belugas means that facilities have to continuously import belugas from the wild to replenish their displays. While captive orcas are now rarely taken from the wild, the desire to replenish the tanks means belugas are still captured from wild populations.
NOAA recently denied a permit to import 18 wild belugas to oceanariums across the US, citing the fragility of the northern stock and the unknown impacts to the species as a whole. These belugas were from Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk, an area that has not been well-studied where the beluga population dynamics are unknown. When animals are taken from the wild, the individuals who are forced into captivity are not the only ones who suffer – family members and social consorts left behind must deal with the sudden change in their population structure and significant loss from their group. The permit was denied because the effects of removing 18 individuals – a little more than the starting lineup of a soccer team (including substitutes) – could have detrimental effects on the entire population, just like removing all the starters from a team would do. Not enough is known about the Sea of Okhotsk population to predict exactly what could happen, though there is no doubt that removing 18 potential contributors to the gene pool greatly reduces the overall genetic health of the population
While orcas are the recent poster-faces for the anti-captivity movement, it is important to remember the other animals that suffer from captivity. Belugas, pilot whales, porpoises, and dolphins are all held captive in stressful and traumatic situations that reduce their quality of life. WDC’s mission is a world where every whale and dolphin is safe and free, and that includes all individuals held in captivity, even the ones that are sometimes overlooked.