Five beluga whales slated to be moved to Mystic Aquarium will have their day in court and remain where they are until at least March to allow a judge to decide the legality of moving them from Canada following a lawsuit FoA filed in Connecticut district court.

The suit was filed in September against the National Marine Fisheries Service for approving a research permit that would allow Mystic Aquarium, which currently is home to three belugas, to import five more beluga whales from Marineland, a facility in Canada, because it violates the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA).

After FoA filed a motion to enjoin the import Mystic agreed not to move the belugas until at least March 31 to allowing time for the court to address.

“You would think after all these years of already doing research on their belugas—Kela, 29, Natasha, 29, and Juno, 18—scientists at Mystic would understand what belugas need to thrive—lots of open ocean space and socialization, which they are robbed of in captivity,” said Priscilla Feral, president of FoA.

“Beluga whales are extremely social—their pods range from a few fellow belugas to hundreds of individuals.

“They’re known to dive to 1,000- meter depths for periods of up to 25 minutes. The deepest record dive was to 3,300 feet, something they can’t do in shallow aquarium tanks.”

FoA’s lawsuit states that the permit violates the MMPA and NEPA because the five belugas were all born at Marineland from parents who were caught in the wild from a depleted population off the coast of Russia in the early 2000s and because the government did not adequately address the harms that this permit will inflict on the belugas.

“Shamefully, their wildness, what makes them whole, was already stolen from them before they were even born,” said Stephen Hernick, an attorney for FoA’s Wildlife Law Program. “Not only is it unprecedented for the government to issue a permit to import members of a depleted species of belugas for purported research, it is illegal.”

In addition, MMPA requires that an import such as this be in the best interest of these belugas, and no one can credibly claim this transport is in their best interest. Moving these belugas tears them away from deep relationships that they have formed with the other belugas at Marineland, and the long voyage emotionally and psychologically scars them.

“It is well documented that belugas form lifelong bonds with other belugas. For the government to completely fail to acknowledge the social and behavioral harms that this permit would inflict on the belugas in its Environmental Assessment is indefensible,” said Hernick.

Mystic is claiming its research is urgent and necessary to prevent belugas from going extinct in the wild. Yet, anyone can visit the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website and read about how the game-changing research to help the Cook Inlet belugas in Alaska, who are critically endangered under the Endangered Species Act, is being done by studying them in the wild.

“Perhaps Mystic has become more motivated by its own survival than by conservation. It ran a deficit of $2.5 million in 2017, according to its last publicly available tax filing,” Feral said. “And the aquarium knows how popular its beluga exhibit is. But a photo op is not research or conservation unless you are researching how to make more money.”

This post was updated on 12/24/20.