On August 14th, lawyers in a federal courtroom in Atlanta squared off before the judge about whether 18 wild-caught beluga whales from the Sea of Okhotsk can be imported into the United States to be kept in small concrete tanks in aquariums for the rest of their lives. Their fate hangs in the balance.
Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project intervened in the case as a defendant, joining a coalition of organizations that includes Animal Welfare Institute, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, and Cetacean Society International.
Over the past two years, eleven orcas were caught in the wild in the Sea of Okhotsk. Seven are believed to have been exported to a Chinese aquarium, while three others are now at the Moscow aquarium, the first orcas ever put on display in Russia.
And it has now just been reported that three additional wild orcas were recently captured in the Russian Far East, destined for sale to captivity facilities.
We believe the proposed beluga import into the US, now in litigation, is intimately connected to plans for trade in wild-caught orca whales. Russia has become, along with Taiji, Japan, the place where aquariums and swim-with-dolphins operations go to get captive cetaceans to perform circus tricks for tourists.
In 2012, the Georgia Aquarium, the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, and the three SeaWorld parks applied to the US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to import the 18 wild-caught beluga whales from Russia.
SeaWorld piously claims they no longer catch cetaceans in the wild for their tanks. However, what they don’t say is that it is fine if the Russians do the capturing for them instead.
This was the first application for wild-caught cetaceans to be imported into the US in 20 years. After NMFS received the most comments they had ever received for such a permit application (about 9,000), they denied the permit request in 2014, another first, as NMFS never before denied an import permit for captivity since Congress enacted the MMPA (Marine Mammal Projection Act) in 1972.
NMFS has solid scientific grounds for their decision to deny the import permit, including the impact on the wild beluga species, the likely result of increased captures beyond those authorized, and the fact that five of the beluga whales were still nursing and not yet independent at the time of capture. For more details of NMFS’s decision click HERE.
The record of aquariums maintaining healthy beluga whales in captivity is poor. The application by the Georgia Aquarium claims that belugas live as long in captivity as in the wild and that high mortality of belugas in captivity “largely ceased by 1995.” Yet, two of nine captive belugas held at the Georgia Aquarium, according to NMFS records, died in captivity at the Georgia Aquarium in 2007.
In fact, of 34 belugas that have died in captivity in these aquariums, 25 have died since 1995 (not counting two that died in 1995). In total, of 71 belugas that have been held by these aquariums (and often transferred between them) seeking the import permit, 34 have died in captivity—almost 48% of them.
The 18 belugas, if imported, would likely face a stressful life in captivity and many of them may die young. Nonetheless, the Georgia Aquarium sued NMFS in 2014, contending the failure to issue their import permit was “arbitrary and capricious”.
We agree with NMFS that the permit request violated the MMPA in several respects noted above that are detrimental to the beluga whales.
Further, the precedent set if Georgia Aquarium, Shedd, and SeaWorld are permitted to import wild-caught beluga whales from Russia could open the floodgates from Russia, including wild Russian orcas, to US aquariums.
During the 1960’s and 70’s, the captivity industry, led by SeaWorld, caught dozens of baby orcas from the wild in the Pacific Northwest. Today, that population is listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act. While this Pacific Northwest population of orcas is beset by many perils, including especially toxic pollution and reduced salmon runs, experts agree that the depletion of the population by the captivity industry reduced and weakened the population, and the orcas have not recovered. The orca population in Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk, now being depleted by the Russian captivity industry, is unknown.
Earth Island and our colleagues reject setting the precedent for imports of wild-caught cetaceans from Russia.
We cannot allow the captivity industry to set a legal precedent that undermines the MMPA protections for wild cetaceans and condemns many more beluga whales, orcas and other species to a life of captivity and premature death.
A decision from the court on the beluga whale import case in Atlanta is expected in the next few months.