The Georgia Aquarium uses the term “extinction” in its recent petition to garner support for taking wild belugas out of the ocean and putting them into tanks. Whether the Georgia Aquarium understands extinction is not clear. But there are only two options:
- A) It does; or
- B) It does not
In its petition, the Aquarium states, “Unfortunately, with fewer than 35 belugas in accredited aquariums in North America, this population of animals in human care is facing certain extinction.”
So, let’s walk through this statement in order to help us understand the message that the Georgia Aquarium is sending to the public:
Extinction: “In biology and ecology, extinction is the end of an organism or of a group of organisms (taxon), normally a species.” (From Wikipedia).
Population of animals in human care (in accredited aquariums in North America): While the notion of “population extinction” is a credible component of species extinction, it was never intended to describe an artificial, man-made assemblage of animals extracted from wild populations and inserted into a captive display program. As described in 1993 by Paul Erlich and Gretchen Daily, population extinction is most commonly viewed geographically and in two aspects. These two aspects are a demographic unit and a mendelian population. As noted by Erlich and Daily, a demographic unit is “simply an interbreeding group sufficiently isolated from other interbreeding groups so that changes in size do not greatly influence the size of nearby groups, and vice-versa.” The other group, the mendelian population, “is, in essence, a genetically defined entity that can evolve independently of other such units . . .”
So, does the Georgia Aquarium understand that neither of these definitions was intended to encompass an artificial assemblage of captive animals in a “collection”? I don’t know the answer to that. In either event, however, this use of the term is inappropriate, and the Georgia Aquarium should resist its further use in its judicial challenge to NOAA’s denial, on its webpage, in tours at the Aquarium, and in petitions directed at a public who tends to learn much of what it knows about marine mammals from aquariums. I will add, though, that I find it disconcerting to think that it actually might not understand extinction since it claims “conservation” and “education” as its goals. Oops.
In the wide and wild world, there is but one beluga population that is, in fact, endangered, being listed on the United States’ List of Endangered Species as well as on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List. That population is the Cook’s Inlet beluga whale group, which is a demographic unit and possibly also mendelian, whose ongoing plight was caused largely by “over-harvesting”. Efforts are underway to protect that population, despite recent threats.
While it bears noting that some captive programs utilize aggressive breeding to prevent species-wide extinction where the wild populations are in danger, we humans should not extract wild animals from healthy, wild populations in order to preserve the captive one. And where we do, we do not invent a fiction that we are doing so to prevent “extinction”.
Short sidebar: The Georgia Aquarium’s petition notes that there are fewer than 35 beluga whales held in North American accredited aquariums. This must exclude the 45 beluga whales held at Marineland Canada. I didn’t realize that Marineland was not accredited. I think we should leave this issue to the two aquariums to address. Whether it should have been is another matter.
But back to the point, whether or not the Georgia Aquarium includes the Marineland whales, it would be inappropriate to consider the concept of “extinction” anywhere in this debate over whether the Georgia Aquarium should be allowed to invigorate the international capturing of wild marine mammals for the aquarium industry.
Don’t take the bait. And I promise I won’t use the term “extinct” in my wish that all facilities that hold marine mammals go the way of the dinosaur.