A Win for Belugas!

They are known by many names.
The white whale.
Canary of the sea.
Whatever you choose to call them, the rotund white whale is
instantly recognizable with its rounded melon and happy expression, its lips
continually pursed as if begging for a kiss. Like many other sea creatures, the
beluga has captured the hearts of many and enchanted us humans with its playful
ways. That being said, why on earth would you want to take it away from its
natural habitat? 

In 2012, the Georgia Aquarium requested a permit from the
NOAA that would allow them to import 18 wild caught belugas from Russia’s Black
Sea Coast for public display in their facilities as well as other marine parks
throughout the United States. These facilities included the three Sea World
parks along with Shedd Aquarium. It had been almost 20 years since a permit
like this had been applied for; public outcry at the deaths during the Penn
Cove captures had shed a bad light on wild captures by US marine parks and the
last permit for importing wild caught cetaceans was granted in 1993.
As with most marine parks, the excuse for removing these
belugas from the ocean and their family in the wild was that public displays of
cetaceans are needed in order to educate the public about these animals and
promote conservation in order to protect them. This is, of course, ignoring the
fact that removing them from the wild would be doing little more than depleting
wild populations.

With the Georgia Aquarium offering theatrical shows like many other
marine parks, it’s a fair assumption that the belugas would not have been used
for education any more than the cetaceans already held in captivity. These
belugas would have done little more than replenish their decreasing supply of
captive belugas in order to keep their entertainment business going.

There was controversy over the permit coming from both sides
and a comment period was held by the NOAA where the public was allowed to
submit comments concerning whether the permit should be denied. Activists
joined together to protest and encourage the NOAA to say no to the request. Roughly
9,000 comments were submitted regarding the issue; many of them against
importing the whales. After voices had been raised, there was only one thing
left to do: wait.

It was a long waiting period, but last week, the NOAA informed
the public that the import was denied for the following reasons (as quoted from
the NOAA website):
  • “We were unable to
    determine whether the proposed activity, by itself or in combination with other
    activities, would likely have a significant adverse impact on the species or
    stock.  We believe that it is likely that total removals from this stock
    have exceeded the total net production on an annual basis resulting in a small,
    but steady and significant decline over the past 2 decades.  We believe
    the ongoing live-capture trade since 1989 may have contributed to a cumulative
    decline over the past two decades, and we considered this in combination with
    other past, present, and foreseeable future actions.  
  • We determined that
    the requested import will likely result in the taking of marine mammals beyond
    those authorized by the permit.  There are ongoing, legal marine mammal
    capture operations in Russia that are expected to continue, and we believe that
    issuance of this permit would contribute to the demand to capture belugas from
    this stock for the purpose of public display in the U.S. and worldwide, resulting
    in the future taking of additional belugas from this stock.
  • We determined that five of the beluga whales proposed for import, estimated to be approximately 1.5 years old at the time of the capture, were potentially still nursing and not yet independent.”

      We would like to commend the NOAA for their
decision, which has come in favor of the belugas. Thank you to all of the
dedicated activists who put time and energy toward seeing that this permit was
denied. It is a wonderful thing to see so many people standing up for the
oceans and for those without a voice. When a group of compassionate individuals
come together, great things can happen. And this time, we won.  
What a win!

photo credit, last 3 photos: NOAA public gallery.