Georgia Aquarium’s Beluga Whale Capture Comes Under Fire
Source: Brandon Keim, Wired Science
Controversy is brewing over the Georgia Aquarium’s plan to import 18 beluga whales captured off the coast of Russia. If the U.S. government approves the plan, it will mark the first time in nearly two decades that wild-caught cetaceans have been imported into an aquarium in the United States.
According to the aquarium, the whales are needed for research and education. According to animal welfare advocates, that doesn’t justify the trauma inflicted on intelligent, emotional creatures that suffer in captivity.
“If we let them in, it means we’re going to have this issue all the time. It will open up the floodgates,” said Lori Marino, a neurobiologist at Emory University and prominent cetacean rights activist.
In June, the Georgia Aquarium asked the National Marine Fisheries Service for permission to import the belugas, which had been caught between 2005 and 2011 in the Sea of Okhutsk, off the far eastern coast of Russia. Belugas are regularly caught in that region for captive display in marine parks outside the United States.
The Georgia Aquarium and its critics disagree over whether the aquarium commissioned the capture of its 18 whales or purchased whales that would’ve been captured regardless, but the essential ethical question is the same: Should beluga whales be kept in captivity?
About 150,000 belugas survive in the wild, where they’re considered “near threatened.” They’ve yet to fully recover from whaling, and may still suffer from climate change and Arctic development, but on the whole they’re doing okay. In captivity in the U.S., a total of 31 belugas live in six U.S. aquariums, down from 40 in the early 1990s. Aquarium officials say this dwindling, inbred population is unsustainable, and needs an infusion of fresh animals to survive.
Even as the captive population has declined, however, reasons for questioning the ethics of cetacean captivity have multiplied. The best-studied species, including dolphins and orcas, are extremely intelligent a case can be made for thinking of them as people and highly social. In psychological terms, they’re adapted to active lifestyles in enriched environments.
For cetaceans, then, an aquarium’s pools might be likened to a backyard-sized tiger cage, and in recent years facilities like SeaWorld, which along with Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium would receive some of the Georgia Aquarium’s beluga shipment, have been criticized for keeping orcas in conditions that literally drive them mad.
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