UPDATE: Beluga Whale Import is Legal but Still Hotly Debated

Written by on November 2, 2012 in Marine Life, Policy & Ocean Law
Mother and baby Beluga whale in the Arctic.

Mother and baby Beluga whale in the Arctic. Photo credit: NOAA.

In September, we wrote about the Georgia Aquarium‘s request to import beluga whales.  Since then, the argument between aquariums and environmentalists has escalated.

Here’s what you need to know:

On June 15, 2012 the Georgia Aquarium (GA) submitted an application for a Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) Permit to import 18 beluga whales that were previously captured from the Russian Sea of Okhotsk.  This is the first request of its kind since 1988.

These whales will also be the first marine mammals taken from the wild and put in captivity in the United States since 1993, negating nearly two decades of progress.  The GA will keep six of the animals and distribute the rest on “breeding loan” to other aquariums.

Currently, there are 31 belugas in captivity in the United States and of those, only three were captured from the wild, all in the late 1980s.  The rest were transferred from other facilities or rescued after being found sick or stranded.

Here’s what’s been made clear since our initial article:

While it is still controversial, importing the whales is technically not in violation of the MMPA because it “allows for the removal from the wild or importation of marine mammals for the purpose of public display.”

The GA wrote that importing the new whales will bring “the population base of captive belugas to a self-sustaining level,” as they plan to use the new whales for their previously unsuccessful captive breeding program.

While the permit claims the belugas are being imported for public display and educational purposes, the real reason is to increase the genetic diversity among captive belugas.  Over the last five decades, aquariums and other facilities have proved that captive breeding of belugas doesn’t work.  In fact, just this May a beluga was born at the GA for the first time, but died only a few days later.

Something else to keep in mind, as Jared Goodman wrote for the Telegraph (link no longer active), is that since the Georgia Aquarium opened in 2005, two whale sharks captured from the wild and three beluga whales have died.

NOAA’s public comment period has closed, but they received thousands of comments. Out of 8,294 comments, less than ten included the phrase “I support” the permit. There is also still an open petition on Change.org.  A decision isn’t expected until at least January, but we’ll keep you informed as updates appear.

Beluga whale at the Georgia Aquarium.

Beluga whale at the Georgia Aquarium. Photo credit: Jennifer Skidmore, NOAA.

To learn more:

Copyright © 2012 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of MarineScienceToday.com. She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .


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