In the coming days, the fate of 18 beluga whales in a research facility on the Russian coast of the Black Sea will be decided by a single U.S. District judge in Atlanta. It’s a peculiar predicament and one that reveals the complex legal and moral issues surrounding whale captivity.
In June 2012, the Georgia Aquarium filed a permit application with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries (NOAA) to transfer the 18 belugas—which had been collected by Russian scientists in the Sea of Okhotsk in the late 2000s and early 2010s—to its Atlanta facility and to several other aquariums in the United States, including three SeaWorld theme parks.
But the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972 forbids the importation of marine mammals into the United States without a special permit that can be issued for purposes of scientific research, public display, photography, or conservation. In order to acquire a permit, facilities like the Georgia Aquarium must run a conservation and education program and meet certain conditions pertaining to the capture and transfer of the animals.
At the time of filing, Georgia Aquarium’s application was “the first application for a permit to import recently caught wild marine mammals” that NOAA Fisheries had received in over 20 years.
The application sparked tremendous public controversy, including an online petition that garnered over 75,000 signatures. NOAA Fisheries received such a high volume of comments on the aquarium’s permit application that they extended the mandated period for public input from one month to two. In the end, they received approximately 9,000 comments, all of which are still available online.
Among these comments was a letter written by marine scientist Dr. Naomi Rose on behalf of The Humane Society, which held that the transfer of the whales would “[undermine] two decades of progress toward a permanent cessation of sourcing cetaceans from the wild by U.S. public display facilities.”
The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDC), a global conservation charity, also opposed the permit, calling it “a blatant disregard for the welfare of these animals that undercuts the spirit and intent of marine mammal protection laws.”
Other opponents cited the environmental threats facing the extremely social species as proof that the animals should not be held in captivity and relative isolation. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), there are over 150,000 beluga whales on the planet and their extinction status is “near threatened,” two statuses away from being “endangered.”
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), on the other hand, supported the application, arguing that the “compelling exhibits that showcase the natural wonder of marine life” found in aquariums “inspire people to take action in reducing threats to fragile ocean ecosystems and wildlife.”
In its application (PDF), the Georgia Aquarium also maintained that the public display would “promote conservation and education,” and argued that the importation of 18 beluga whales would bolster “the genetic diversity in the North American captive population” so that it can reach a “self-sustaining level.”
There are currently 29 beluga whales in captivity in the United States, which is not enough to maintain a diverse gene pool for breeding purposes. As Atlanta radio station WABE reports, at least five beluga whales have died at the Georgia Aquarium. The most recent was born in captivity this May and died a mere 26 days later. A Georgia Aquarium spokesperson told the station that the death was “primarily due to a genetic issue.”
In August 2013, NOAA Fisheries denied the aquarium’s application, citing three concerns. First, the agency claimed that it could not definitively determine whether or not the collection of the whales would impact the stock from which they were taken. Second, it held that the importation of the 18 whales could increase the demand for whale capture operations in Russia. And third, the agency noted that five of the belugas “were potentially still nursing” when captured.
According to the Georgia Aquarium’s application, these five whales were estimated to be 1½ years old at the time of capture. As the Associated Press reports, the aquarium claimed that they were able to eat solid food after capture and therefore did not need to nurse any longer, if they were still doing so.
The Georgia Aquarium called the denial of the permit “arbitrary,” disputed the NOAA’s estimate of the beluga population for the stock in question, and filed a complaint in a U.S. District Court with the goal of reversing the decision.
Last Friday, almost two years after the suit was filed, the case came to federal court and now District Judge Amy Totenberg is tasked with deciding whether or not NOAA held the aquarium to an illegal standard.
An NOAA spokesperson told The Daily Beast that the agency “cannot discuss ongoing litigation” but made reference to a public statement on the permit denial.
In addition to reiterating the agency’s reasons for denying the application, the statement notes that NOAA will continue to accept applications, and that the decision should not be seen as “a statement by NOAA Fisheries against...public display.”
The Georgia Aquarium has also issued a statement, which claims that if the transfer were denied, “there would likely never be a sustainable population of beluga whales in accredited facilities in North America.” The aquarium also holds that the animals were “humanely collected” and that the belugas’ importation would further global conservation efforts.
But opponents say that the aquarium is asking for forgiveness rather than permission by making ominous reference to the future of the 18 belugas if they are left in Russia’s hands.
In its public statement, the aquarium argues, “because the U.S. has among the highest standards of marine mammal care in the world, we strongly believe it is best for the animals to come here, as was originally intended.” If the permit is denied, they warn, the Russian Academy of Sciences “will have no choice but to find aquariums or zoological institutions outside the U.S. that will take in the animals.”
“This aquarium commissioned the captures of these belugas and then asked for permission later,” the WDC alleged in its original 2012 public letter. It’s an allegation that the charity repeated when the aquarium’s application was denied in 2013. The WDC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Wired has also reported that “[t]he Georgia Aquarium and its critics disagree over whether the aquarium commissioned the capture of its 18 whales.”
When asked if the aquarium had commissioned the original capture of the whales, a Georgia Aquarium spokesperson told The Daily Beast, “No, we did not.” The aquarium’s public statement describes the original collectors of the whales as “independent groups working under permits issued by the Russian government.”
However the collection originally came about, the high-profile nature of the case has turned it into a sort of moral referendum on the question of whale captivity. The forthcoming federal court ruling will apply only to the Georgia Aquarium’s application and not to the practice of publicly displaying marine mammals, but after two decades without beluga importation in the United States, the verdict’s effects will be far-reaching.
The tide may be starting to turn against what once was the cornerstone of American aquariums—the keeping of whales in captivity.