In a high-profile decision, the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) yesterday denied a request from a consortium of U.S. marine parks and aquariums to import 18 beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) from Russia for public display, finding the move would violate marine mammal protection laws. The June 2012 request for the import permit, led by the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, had divided marine mammal scientists, drawn extensive opposition from animal rights groups, and prompted more than 9000 comments from the public.
The Georgia Aquarium lamented the decision, saying that it would set back efforts to study the species and reduce opportunities for public education. But conservationists applauded. The agency “has done the right thing,” says Lori Marino, a marine mammal biologist and cetacean advocate at Emory University in Atlanta. “They followed the scientific evidence.”
The belugas were captured in the wild from the Sea of Okhotsk between 2006 and 2011 and are being held in a research station on the Black Sea Coast. In its permit application, the Georgia Aquarium said that it planned to import the 18 animals by air. It intended to keep six for its own display, and transfer 11 to SeaWorld marine parks, and one to the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Illinois. The Georgia Aquarium now has four other belugas, which are used for education, conservation, and research projects. With their white skin, melon-shaped heads, and smilelike jaw lines, the whales are popular with visitors; paying visitors can even enter the water to touch the whales in a special “Beluga & Friends” program. About 30 belugas live in five other facilities in the United States.
But these parks and aquariums face a dilemma. Their belugas have shorter lives than wild relatives, and the facilities have had mixed results breeding them in captivity. In 2012, the Georgia Aquarium's first captive-born calf died a few days after birth, but other aquariums have had more success. To maintain their beluga programs, the facilities must replenish their stock by importing additional animals from wild populations—and Russia is the only country that permits such captures. The aquariums must also get approval from NMFS, a part of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In making its decision, the agency looked to the requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which does not allow the removal of marine mammals from the wild if doing so contributes to a population’s decline. In particular, NMFS determined that Georgia Aquarium’s request fell short in three ways.
One conclusion was that the imports would adversely affect the specific population of whales from which the belugas were captured. That finding was based, in part, on surveys of wild populations sponsored by the Georgia Aquarium and several other facilities, notes Michael Payne, a top official with the NMFS Office of Protected Resources. The “research and surveys provided the only good data” on this Russian population, he says. Counts taken from 2007 to 2010 turned up at least 3000 belugas in Russia’s Sakhalin Bay, and the aquarium estimated that the population could withstand the removal of 29 whales annually.
But agency reviewers reached a different conclusion. Their analysis indicated that “any removal of belugas from that population is not sustainable,” Payne says, because it adds yet another threat to the many that the whales already face. Across the Arctic, belugas, which number about 150,000, are suffering from development, overhunting, ship strikes, pollution, and climate change. Only four of the 29 beluga populations worldwide are considered stable by the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission.
Agency officials also found that approving the permit would likely lead to the seizure of additional marine mammals for display and that the past captures had not adhered to MMPA rules that only adult or juvenile marine mammals be taken. Five of the captured belugas were only 1.5 years old when they were removed from the wild, the agency concluded. Because belugas nurse until age 2, these five animals were likely nursing and not yet independent of their mothers.
Now that NMFS has said no to shipping the whales to the United States, the fate of the 18 captive belugas is unclear. They may be sold to other facilities. But Marino hopes that conservationists and advocates can help “reunite the whales with their population. I have no details on how this will happen, but you can be sure there will be an effort to do this.”