Statement of Georgia Aquarium
Following an extensive and unfruitful twelve-year effort to relocate 18 beluga whales from Russia to the United States to create a sustainable population of the beluga whales in human care in North America, the leadership of Georgia Aquarium has decided that it will no longer seek to collect dolphins or beluga whales from the wild except in rescue situations.
This decision was reached after the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) denied the aquarium’s permit application to import the beluga whales from Sea of Okhotsk, despite a validated peer-review population abundance study that concluded the population is stable and will not be negatively affected by acquiring a limited number of belugas from that area.
They feel strongly they were doing what was right and lawful and that NOAA Fisheries violated their longstanding interpretation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which specifically stresses the importance of caring for animals at zoos and aquariums in order to not only advance science, but to encourage conservation and awareness in the millions of guests who visit these organizations.
However, they believe NOAA’s decision is precedent-setting and could be challenging for any future requests for acquisition from ocean-dwelling populations.
The aquarium remains committed to its important mission of providing exceptional care of cetaceans as well as educational, conservation and research efforts. It will continue its dolphin and beluga whale programs through breeding and exchange of animals living at high-quality care facilities.
Response by Born Free Foundation
The Georgia Aquarium, yesterday, announced that it will no longer take whales and dolphins from the wild. The Aquarium, which had previously applied to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales from Russia, makes this announcement days after the first showing of the highly-anticipated ‘Born To Be Free’ documentary about the brutal capture of Beluga from the wild – a film we may come to call the next ‘Blackfish for Belugas’.
The 18 whales were originally caught in 2012 after the Georgia Aquarium first applied for a permit under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) to import them from the Russian Sea of Okhotsk. The application was rejected by the National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS); a decision appealed by Georgia Aquarium in the US District Court in September 2013. In October 2015 a Federal court in Washington DC rejected the application outright. The Aquarium did not appeal.
Since their capture, the whales have been kept in holding tanks at the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station in Russia, where they are still in limbo. They belong to Russia but Aquarium Chairman and CEO Michael Leven, says The Aquarium felt responsible for them. “We’ve tried very hard to get these animals housed somewhere in the world,” he said. “We just felt that we had a moral and ethical responsibility to find them a place.”
‘These whales are no longer destined for Georgia Aquarium but are still destined for life in a tank.’ says Born Free Programmes Officer Samantha Goddard. ‘These whales were caught from the wild and yet captivity is being offered as the solution. These individuals have remained in the country they were caught, in the group that was caught together. The single most important question that remains unanswered is: “Could they be candidates for rehabilitation to the wild where they could re-join a population which has been openly declared as depleted.’
Whilst The Born Free Foundation congratulates such a forward looking decision by Georgia Aquarium, we cannot — we must not — ignore the fact that there are 18 wild animals who should not spend the rest of their days in captivity.
(Source: Georgia Aquarium press release, 22.06.2016; Born Free news, 23.06.2016)