FoA files lawsuit to stop move of five belugas to Mystic

Friend of Animals has filed a lawsuit in Connecticut district court 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 and the National Environmental Protection Act.

“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 Friends of Animals. “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.”

That 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 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 Friends of Animals Wildlife Law Program. “They were born to belugas ripped from the wild in the early 2000s from what is now a depleted population of belugas off the coast of Russia. 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 that a sudden, risky, unnecessary removal and stressful transport to another aquarium is in their best interest.

Moving these belugas inflicts two distinct traumas on them. It tears them away from deep familial and social relationships that they have formed with the dozens of other belugas at Marineland, and the long and foreign voyage on trucks and airplanes emotionally and psychologically scars them.

“It is well-documented that belugas are highly social animals who 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.
And because of technology improvements, studying belugas and other marine mammals in the wild is much easier than it used to be.

“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.”