Switching from an organization that was already making deals to import Beluga whales from the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station in Russia to the United States, the Georgia Aquarium recently announced it would no longer capture wild dolphins or whales.
This public announcement was influenced by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) decision of denying the aquarium an import permit for 18 Belugas back in 2013. NOAA argued that allowing this action might increase public demand for wild-caught animals. Hadn’t NOAA intervened, these 18 Belugas would have been split between the Georgia Aquarium and three SeaWorld parks. The Aquarium filed a lawsuit to persuade the U.S. government agency to authorize the importation. However, District Court Judge Amy Totenberg rejected the Aquarium’s request and ruled for banning the permit.
The facility initially wanted to bring in whales that were collected from the Sea of Okhotsk in Northern Russia in 2006, 2010 and 2011. Presently, the captured whales are temporarily being held in very small pens at the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station. Michael Leven, Chairman, and CEO of the Georgia Aquarium claims to have found permanent homes for seven whales, while still being on the lookout for suitable facilities for eight more. However, the future is still unclear for these captured whales.
Despite the uncertainty, the decision of the Georgia Aquarium is now an official one. Backed against a wall and facing great pressure from public backlash, the Georgia Aquarium has committed to ending permanently the practice of importing captured cetaceans. Back in November 2015, they announced their intentions not to appeal U.S. District Court Judge Amy Totenberg’s decision denying the import permit. They have also issued an official statement to the public through their website.
They still consider they were doing what was best for Beluga whales, but believe that NOAA’s decision is “precedent-setting” and will, therefore, conform to it. However, the statement does not say whether this final decision was in any way influenced by the release of a documentary that exposed the captivity conditions of Beluga whales in Russia.
“Born to be free” highlights the adverse effects captivity has on sea mammals and the dangerous predicament of 15 Beluga whales that were captured in Russia. Six years in captivity caused the death of one whale and severe disease to the others. It seems likely that the aquarium decided to get ahead of the inevitable bad publicity they would face if “Born to be free” is ever to be released in the United States. Similarly, “Blackfish” another documentary, exposed the life of a captivated Orca named Tilikum that killed its trainer, and became a serious public relations issue for SeaWorld & Entertainment.
This decision was not an easy one for the aquarium administration. Whales and dolphins have become some of their biggest attractions and generated significant amounts of profit for the facility. In previous statements, the Georgia Aquarium considered that wild Beluga capture was beneficial for gene pool diversification, this making the population more stable and broadening the research database for their needs and capabilities. They believed captivity helped prevent the disappearance of these creatures from North American zoological facilities.
While the prospect of not being able to see a cetacean in captivity may be a sad one for some visitors, there is no real evidence that this practice is even remotely positive for their survival. In fact, since the Aquarium opening in Georgia nearly 11 years ago, three adult Belugas and two infant ones have died. These unfortunate events sparked a huge debate and subsequent backlash in social media. This undoubtedly influenced the aquarium’s ultimate decision to stop these contrived practices for good.
Animal advocacy and anti-captivity groups like PETA, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and the Nonhuman Rights Project, have pronounced themselves on the issue, concerned with the possibility that the 18 captured animals will be sold to marine theme parks or aquariums in countries with low standards of animal welfare. On the other hand, activists are currently attempting to build sanctuaries for whales and dolphins that are retired from SeaWorld and other similar zoological entities. In consequence, groups like the Animal Welfare Institute are looking at their legal options, while making continuous efforts to conserve and protect marine mammals.
This decision constitutes a victory for animal advocacy and marine wildlife preservation groups everywhere and does set a precedent for wildlife protection. It is also a victory for Beluga whales that number at least 150,000 in the world and are relatively abundant, but are nevertheless suffering because of bad human activity like harvesting, hunting, and destruction of the environment.