In My View
In October 2012, a television reporter in Connecticut interviewed me about the Georgia Aquarium’s move to secure a federal import permit for 18 beluga whales captured in Russia for public display in the United States. The Mystic Aquarium of Connecticut was keen to purchase several whales from the Russian roundup.
U.S. government approval would likely trigger international trade in belugas. It had been 19 years since belugas were imported into the United States for marine parks, but now, the businesses seek to replace their dwindling captive populations.
Belugas are sought in Russian waters, where these whales are not considered endangered, though they are still recovering from past hunting pressure.
Sea World in San Antonio, San Diego, and Orlando, the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, and the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta market these small, white, vocal whales to customers who pay $140 to $250, as Felicity Barringer at
The New York Times writes, “to don wet suits and pet or be nuzzled by the animals.”
The Shedd Aquarium, t he Times reports, “offers couples, for $450, a romantic wading experience that can culminate in a marriage proposal with Champagne, strawberries and the beluga as a de facto chaperon.”
Under scrutiny, aquarium officials argue that their “research” on captive belugas helps free-living whales.
Their sense of self
The 18 belugas netted in three roundups in the Sea of Okhotsk off the Siberian coast are now housed in Russian pens and marked for sale. Thirty-one beluga whales live in displays in the U.S. in tanks of glass and concrete, far from the freedom of the ocean.
Friends of Animals’ Atlanta member Seth Pajak interviewed Dr. Lori Marino, an expert on cetaceans. Dr. Marino, who serves on the faculty at the Emory Center for Ethics and an executive director for The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, says belugas don’t belong in captivity.
“Their sense of self underlies an awareness of their life circumstances in a way that only adds to their suffering,” Dr. Marino says. “Belugas and other cetaceans remember the arc of their life — where they were, who they knew, what they did — and they can compare that to their life in captivity. I cannot imagine that brings them anything other than despair.”
As to any non-commercial value in capturing cetaceans for marine parks, Dr. Marino says:
To date, there is no compelling evidence that seeing belugas or other animals on display leads to real education or conservation action. I have a real concern about the impact of seeing animals in tanks and cages on young children. If it teaches them anything, it teaches them that humans have the power to be overbearing and manipulating. It teaches them that entertainment trumps compassion.
Peter Wallerstein, who directs our Marine Animal Rescue project in Los Angeles County, submitted Friends of Animals’ comments to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), pressing them to reject the import permit. A decision by NOAA Fisheries is expected in early 2013.
Meanwhile, over former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s objections, approximately 375 beluga whales in Alaska’s Cook Inlet have had Endangered Species Act protection since October 2008, which makes their capture for marine parks out of the question. Beluga whales are threatened across their Arctic range by climate change, pollution, noise, vessel traffic, oil and gas exploration, hunting and commercial fish-catching. The last thing they need is the threat of the profit-driven, captive display industry.
- “Opposition as Aquarium Seeks Import of Whales” (9 Oct. 2012).