Tuesday, August 6, 2013


Please take action to protest the capture 
of wild beluga whales. Thank you.

Petitioning Tatyana Zhukova 
Russian Department of Fisheries and Utrishskiy delphinarium: 




Please take action to protest the capture 

Beethoven and Maris are two of the beluga whales owned by the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. The aquarium wants to import 18 belugas from Russia, but the National Marine Fisheries Service denied its application 

Jessica Estepa, E&E reporter
Greenwire: Monday, November 4, 2013

ATLANTA -- A 2-foot-thick glass panel separates Beethoven and Maris from their admirers. The pair swim back and forth in their tank, every once in a while pausing in front of the crowd of about 30 people who have stopped to take in the sight of them.

Some children point at the creatures and whisper to their parents, while other people ask questions, wondering where they originally came from and what they eat for dinner.

It's no wonder. Beethoven and Maris are two of only 31 beluga whales currently living in captivity in the United States. This spot in downtown Atlanta is one of only six places in the country where the animals can be seen.

If the Georgia Aquarium has its way, that number will increase by nearly 60 percent with the importation of 18 belugas, which are known for their expressive faces, from Russia. The creatures, native to Arctic regions of the world, are not considered endangered.

Beluga whales

Beethoven and Maris are two of the beluga whales owned by the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. The aquarium wants to import 18 belugas from Russia, but the National Marine Fisheries Service denied its application earlier this year. Photo courtesy of the Georgia Aquarium.

But the future of that proposal is up in the air. In August, the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, rejected the aquarium's permit application to import the whales. Its reasons included concerns over how the removal of the whales affected the native population in Russia and the possibility that the whales were still nursing when they were captured.

"This decision is not a statement by NOAA Fisheries against the applicant, public display or the live-capture of animals for the purpose of public display," the agency noted in its decision. "The [Marine Mammal Protection Act] provides specific exemptions for public display, provided specific criteria are met. NOAA Fisheries determined that for this application, not all of those criteria were met."

The Marine Mammal Protection Act doesn't provide for an appeals process within the agency, so the aquarium was left with two options, said Scott Higley, the aquarium's vice president of communications and external affairs, as he sat near the exhibit one afternoon last month.

"We could walk away," he said. "But we're not prepared to do that, because we all believe so deeply and we're so committed to this project on behalf of these guys."

The aquarium's remaining option: Go to court. The institution on Sept. 30 filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia. NMFS has 60 days from that date to respond -- an end-of-November deadline that isn't affected by the government shutdown.

An agency spokeswoman declined to comment because the case is pending.

The ongoing dispute over the import of the creatures -- which began when the aquarium filed its application last year and included a heated public hearing -- is representative of a struggle that has long existed between zoos and aquariums that keep animals in captivity and animal rights groups that say keeping animals locked up is inhumane.

For the Georgia Aquarium -- a nonprofit organization that has brought in 19 million visitors since it opened in 2005 -- one of the main missions in importing the beluga whales is to improve the species's genetic diversity for breeding purposes.

Under the proposal, the whales would be divided among the institutions that are currently home to beluga whales: the Georgia Aquarium; the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago; the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut; and the three SeaWorld parks in California, Texas and Florida. There, they would be seen by millions of visitors and be bred to ensure the continuation of the population.

Higley -- who is not a scientist by trade and came to the aquarium after working in commercial real estate -- said experts in the zoological community had determined that the population was reaching a critical point. There were too many young whales, too many old whales and a disproportionate amount of males to females, numbers that were not ideal for breeding.

Of the 31 belugas in the United States, 18 were bred in human captivity, he said. In order to sustain the population, aquariums needed new blood.

"We support the Georgia Aquarium in their efforts for education opportunities and to present these animals so we can conserve the species," said Andy Wood, vice president of marketing and public affairs at Mystic.

The other reason for the import is more abstract. The institutions that play home to these whales have an obligation to educate the public about the animals and their roles in the global ecosystem. To Higley, the best way to do that is to give visitors the chance to see and even interact with the animals.

"It's human nature that you only care about and only work to conserve and protect the things you think are important," he said. "This is a way to create that bond."

Opponents question captivity

Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the Animal Welfare Institute, is among the vocal opponents to the import and disagreed with that premise. She referenced the passion children develop for dinosaurs, which they've never seen.

Rose, who was previously with the Humane Society of the United States, contends that the collection of whales is inhumane. In the pending case, the belugas in question were captured by Russian scientists in 2006, 2010 and 2011.

"In order to capture whales in any setting, you have to restrain them, remove them from the water," she said. "It's traumatic and stressful, and some will die from it."

She believes that beluga breeding in captivity also should end and the captivity of the whales in general should be phased out; the 31 animals currently on display around the country should not be replaced, either from breeding or imports, when they die, she said.

To Rose, the Georgia Aquarium's position that people should be able to see the whales does not constitute a right.

"You can say that this is my opinion and that is their opinion," she said. "But I believe that it's a privilege, not a right, to be able to see these animals. And it should not be at the cost of their welfare."

Leslie Cornick, an associate professor of marine biology at Alaska Pacific University, takes a less extreme view of the situation. Cornick has worked with captive belugas at Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut to conduct research, and she sees value in keeping some whales in captivity.

But she raised concerns about the import of animals from the wild and about Georgia Aquarium's application, in particular. Cornick said she believes the animals were not aged correctly and some may have been nursing when they were captured. The importation of such animals is forbidden under the MMPA and is one of the reasons the permit was denied.

Higley contends that none of the whales was spotted with its mother, which would indicate that a young whale was still nursing. Additionally, the belugas were reportedly all eating solid food when they were captured, another sign they were no longer nursing.

Both Rose and Cornick were among a group of 29 marine mammal scientists who sent a statement to NMFS in opposition to the Georgia Aquarium permit application, expressing doubts about the transport and confinement of the animals. Their statement arrived at the agency along with nearly 9,000 comments from the public last year, many of which expressed negative views of the import.

"I am writing to ask that you deny the Georgia Aquarium a permit to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales from Russia for captive breeding and exhibition at marine parks and aquariums," reads one comment containing language drafted by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "Beluga breeding programs in the United States have been largely unsuccessful, and there is no compelling evidence that these programs create interest in, educate visitors on, or change people's attitudes about conservation."

The aquarium read all the comments and wrote detailed responses, which also were sent to NMFS.

"175 million guests visit aquariums and zoos annually. ... Studies show that seeing and learning about belugas in person increases understanding of the species as well as the potential impact of changes in our oceans," one response from the aquarium read.

Now, as the legal process goes forward, Rose said she thinks the court will find that the agency correctly followed MMPA.

For its part, the aquarium plans to continue to push the same message of education and conservation, something that has been backed by others in the zoological community. Steve Feldman of the Association for Zoos and Aquariums said there's value in keeping animals in captivity.

"There are some things that you can learn from human care, and there are some things that can only be done in an animal's natural habitat," he said. "The most effective way to save the whales is a combination of both."

Whales in limbo

As the legal battle over the whales goes on, the whales continue to live in the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station in Russia.

The whales, which were all born in the wild, were caught in the Sea of Okhotsk: two in 2006, 11 in 2010 and five in 2011. The application details how they were captured, examined by veterinarians working for the Utrish Dolphinarium and then transferred to facilities on the Russian coast of the Black Sea.

According to the Georgia Aquarium's application, the center is meant to be a temporary home, even though they have all been there for years.

The center is operated by the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution, which was established by the Russian Academy of Sciences. Photos submitted by the aquarium show the research station tank and sea pens where the animals live, displaying clean facilities and water. According to the application, the largest holding area connects to a natural lake and measures about 121 feet wide, 157 feet long and 59 feet deep. Three smaller holding pens also are located on-site.

Little information is provided on the dolphinarium that captured the belugas. According to Moscow's official website, the city branch of the dolphinarium is "one of the most popular and visited places of the Russian capital." The animals residing in those facilities, which include bottle-nosed dolphins, walruses and sea lions, take part in entertainment acts. Visitors also can pay to swim with the dolphins.

But animal rights groups have criticized Utrish for its captures. One online petition says, "The tragedy is going on in the Utrish dolphinarium in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Six dolphins ... are incarcerated in a tiny swimming pool used by Soviet sportsmen in the past."

Requests for comment from the Severtsov Institute have not been returned.

And information about what would happen to the whales if they are not imported to the United States is not available. The Georgia Aquarium did not comment on the whales' current living situation but said it remained committed to its efforts to bring them to the United States.

"They are not yet our whales, and we have no say in what happens to them if we are unsuccessful in our efforts to bring them here," Higley said in an email. "However, I can assure you that in that event, we would do everything in our power to ensure that the whales will be given homes with caregivers who espouse the same values and offer high-quality care for the animals."




photo © Jennifer Stuber via summerofmylyfe~dot~tumblr~dot~com

By Jason Garcia, Orlando Sentinel
5:19 p.m. EDT, August 6, 2013

The federal government rejected on Tuesday a bid by a consortium of U.S. marine-park and aquarium owners — including SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. — to import 18 beluga whales captured from the wild.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service said it would not grant an import permit for the whales, which were taken from the Sea of Okhotsk off the eastern coast of Russia, because doing so would contribute to the decline of the wild population from which they were captured.

It was the first time in more than 20 years that any U.S. facility had attempted to import a marine mammal taken from the wild specifically for public display. SeaWorld and other aquarium owners, wary of negative publicity, have for many years opted instead to take in rescued animals deemed unfit for release, import ones already held in overseas aquariums or breed from their existing captive populations.

Tuesday's decision was a monumental victory for the anti-captivity movement, which had deluged the Fisheries Service with public comments condemning the application. Some scientists and even some aquarium owners — notably the National Aquarium in Baltimore and Merlin Entertainments Group's Sea Life Centres — also opposed the permit request.

"The tide is turning. The public sentiment is wholly and fully against acquisition from the wild," said Courtney Vail, campaigns-and-programs manager for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. "I do think it's time that all facilities take a hard look at their policies and move toward not acquiring animals from the wild."

The application had been submitted by the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, which would have owned all 18 belugas. But Orlando-based SeaWorld Entertainment may have stood to gain the most: Application records showed plans to transfer 11 of the whales to SeaWorld marine parks through breeding-loan agreements, including six to SeaWorld San Antonio, three to SeaWorld San Diego and two to SeaWorld Orlando.

The Shedd Aquarium in Chicago would also have received one or more of the whales.

In a prepared statement, the Georgia Aquarium called the decision "deeply disappointing." The 7-year-old facility had hoped the whales would add genetic diversity to the current population of captive beluga whales in the United States.

"Sadly, the decision places the long-term global sustainability of an entire species in limbo," the aquarium stated. "The animals in question would help to ensure the sustainability of beluga whales in human care in the U.S. for the purposes of education, research and conservation.

"Through ongoing conservation and research efforts, our team is proactively seeking solutions to learn all we can to protect these incredible animals in the wild," it added, "in the face of increasing challenges to their survival as the effects of climate change, increased shipping and exploration for natural resources impact them in their natural habitats."

A spokesman said the aquarium has not yet decided whether it will appeal the decision in federal court.

Representatives for SeaWorld were not immediately available for comment.

For all the emotions raging around the controversial application, the Fisheries Service said its decision was ultimately based on a dispassionate analysis of federal law. Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, U.S. facilities can collect marine mammals from the wild for the purpose of public display — but only if the captures do not harm the wild population, or "stock," from which they are taken.

In its application, Georgia Aquarium cited research conducted from 2007 to 2010 that concluded the beluga population in Russia's Sakhalin Bay totaled at least 3,000 animals and could sustain the annual removal of 29 whales without declining. Records showed the research was paid for by SeaWorld and the Georgia Aquarium, along with three other marine-park owners: Ocean Park Corp. of Hong Kong; Mystic Aquarium of Mystic, Conn.; and Kamogawa Sea World of Japan.

But Michael Payne, a top official in the Fisheries Service's Office of Protected Resources, said the agency ultimately concluded that imports would ultimately have a "significant adverse impact" on the wild population.

With the blessing of the Russian government, commercial fishermen have been collecting beluga whales from Sakhalin Bay for nearly 20 years. Payne said that live-capture trade has contributed to a "small but steady decline which has largely gone undetected because of the inadequate monitoring in the region."

What's more, the agency said issuing the requested import permit would have spurred demand for further captures from the Russian stock. And it determined that five of the 18 whales the U.S. aquariums wanted to import were about 11/2 years old when caught and therefore potentially still nursing and not yet independent of their mothers.

Officials said they do not know what will become of the 18 belugas, which were captured from 2006 to 2012 and are held at a research station on the Russian coast of the Black Sea.

"Unfortunately, [the Fisheries Service] does not control the live-capture operations in Russia," Payne said. "Presumably, the 18 whales will be sold, in lieu of capture of the same number of animals, to meet the demands of the industry worldwide."

jrgarcia@tribune.com or 407-420-5414

Copyright © 2013, Orlando Sentinel

Beluga whales. Via 123freegiftscardsforu~dot~com

Following a number of public engagement efforts, NOAA Fisheries today announced it is denying the Georgia Aquarium’s request for a permit to import 18 beluga whales from Russia for public display in the United States. NOAA Fisheries based the decision on requirements of the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA).

The MMPA allows marine mammals to be removed from the wild or imported for the purpose of public display, and provides a process for issuing permits. This is the first application for a permit to import recently caught wild marine mammals in more than 20 years.

“The Georgia Aquarium clearly worked hard to follow the required process and submit a thorough application, and we appreciate their patience and cooperation as we carefully considered this case,” said Sam Rauch, acting assistant NOAA administrator for NOAA Fisheries. “However, under the strict criteria of the law, we were unable to determine if the import of these belugas, combined with the active capture operation in Russia and other human activities, would have an adverse impact on this stock of wild beluga whales.”

After careful review, NOAA Fisheries concluded that the application did not meet several of the MMPA permit criteria. NOAA Fisheries denied the permit application because:

NOAA Fisheries is unable to determine whether or not the proposed importation, by itself or in combination with other activities, would have a significant adverse impact on the Sakhalin-Amur beluga whale stock, the population that these whales are taken from;

NOAA Fisheries determined that the requested import will likely result in the taking of marine mammals beyond those authorized by the permit;
NOAA Fisheries determined that five of the beluga whales proposed for import, estimated to be approximately 1½ years old at the time of capture, were potentially still nursing and not yet independent.  

Cetaceans - Beluga Whales (Delphinapterus leucas)

Beluga whale pod in the Chukchi sea
Photo Credit: Laura Morse (NOAA)
Photo Date: July 1st 2008
Marine Mammal Permit: 14245

The Aquarium sought to import the whales from Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station on Russia’s Black Sea Coast for public display at its own facility in Atlanta and at partner facilities, including SeaWorld of Florida, SeaWorld of Texas, SeaWorld of California and Shedd Aquarium in Chicago.

The whales were captured from Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk between 2006 and 2011. There is little reliable scientific information about the size and population trend of the Sakhalin-Amur stock of belugas, and the impact on the stock of other human activities, such as hunting and fishing, is unknown.

NOAA Fisheries held a public hearing on the proposed beluga whale importation on October 12, 2012. The 60-day public comment period closed Oct. 29, 2012, with NOAA Fisheries receiving approximately 9,000 comments.

Beluga whales are social animals that typically migrate, hunt and interact together in groups of ten to several hundred in the arctic and subarctic waters of Russia, Greenland and North America. Beluga whales face a number of threats including ship strikes, pollution, habitat destruction and entanglement in fishing gear.

For more information, including the decision memo, are available online.

NOAA’s mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth's environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources. Join us on Facebook, Twitter and our other social media channels.

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