Mystic Aquarium’s efforts to acquire five captive beluga whales from Marineland, Canada will inflict unnecessary trauma on the marine animals and will only enhance a captive entertainment and breeding industry that should not be supported, Friends of Animals told the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in comments submitted regarding the Connecticut-based aquarium’s permit request.
The move to Mystic, which ran a deficit of $2.4 million in 2017 according to its latest publicly available tax filing, would require tearing them from their social relationships at the Ontario-based Marineland and transporting them thousands of miles inflicting emotional and psychological trauma, FoA noted in its comments.
Marineland has captured 36 belugas from the wild between 1999-2008 and currently has more than 50, making it the largest known captive beluga facility. Selling the belugas for an undisclosed price will enable it to make room for yet more babies that it hopes will draw big crowds, said FoA Wildlife Law Program attorney Stephen Hernick, who filed the comments.
“It’s doubtful that these captive beluga whales can teach researchers much about belugas in the wild. As an initial matter, most of what can be learned from captive belugas has already been learned,” FoA told NOAA. “As Jacques Costeau once said, ‘There is about as much educational benefit to be gained in studying dolphins in captivity as there would be studying mankind by only observing prisoners held in solitary confinement.’ The same is true of belugas. Moreover, improvements in technology mean that studying belugas and other marine mammals in the wild is not nearly as difficult as it once was.”
Mystic has not ruled out displaying the whales, who are all offspring of belugas taken from the Sea of Okhotsk in Russia, who are now recognized as a depleted stock. Additionally, while claiming the primary purpose of the import is scientific research, Mystic in its application did not rule out breeding them and has requested it be allowed to transfer some of the belugas to Georgia Aquarium. Four of the five belugas are young females.
“It is an unlikely coincidence that Mystic is seeking to partner with an institution that as recently as four years ago was litigating to import wild-caught belugas for public display and to assist captive breeding of belugas across the country,” the FoA comments noted.
The Canadian aquarium had faced 11 counts of animal cruelty brought by the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which was prompted by a complaint by a U.S.-based animal rights group. The charges were later dropped by authorities who said it wasn’t in the public interest to pursue. Since then, Canada approved a “Free Willy” law, which makes it illegal to hold whales and other marine mammals captive, except for rescues, rehab, research or when deemed in the animal’s “best interest.”
FoA’s comments are not the first time it has stepped in to protect belugas, a subspecies of which are endangered. In October, FoA pushed back against the Trump administration’s unrelenting efforts to vigorously promote energy exploration projects in Alaska that endanger beluga whales, whose populations in Cook Inlet have declined so precipitously that approval of a new gas project could push them to extinction. The project seeks to commercialize natural gas resources in Alaska’s North Slope by converting the natural gas supplied to liquified natural gas for users within Alaska,
In comments filed with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on its draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Alaska LNG Project, FoA noted that a FERC’s own biological assessment concluded that the project would increase the risk of vessel strikes on Cook Inlet beluga whales, result in underwater noise that would harass the whales and would cause the whales to lose critical habitat.
FoA also filed comments this summer with the National Marine Fishers Service Office of Protected Resources objecting to its proposal to allow 20 belugas to be taken per year for the first five years of the project, for a total of 100.
“That amount of takes will still likely cause the Cook Inlet beluga whales to become extinct because the population is so fragile. Since scientists cannot pinpoint exactly why the beluga whale population is declining, it will likely continue to decline and taking 6.4 percent of the population each year will surely lead the population to extinction,’’ FoA said in comments submitted in July.
“Belugas are under assault,’’ said Feral, who wrote an Op-Ed in the Hartford Courant on Mystic’s request. “It’s imperative we speak out to protect them instead of enabling energy and entertainment interests looking for profits. They deserve to live hassle free in the wild.”