The death of beluga whale Maris came as a shock to us all, including the Georgia Aquarium. But the Georgia Aquarium knows what it rarely shouts from its tank-covering rooftops: the beluga whale captivity industry is dying, just as surely as are “its” beluga whales.
Dying it is. But becoming “extinct”? Whether calculated to mislead the American public or not, the Georgia Aquarium has used the word “extinction”, generally known to characterize wild populations only, to describe the beluga whales in captivity. It is obvious that this is a misuse of the term, but it is, however, true that the captive beluga whale industry is declining and dying, along with the 35 or so beluga whales now held in U.S. aquaria, and the only saving grace for this industry is, apparently, the influx of wild blood.
One need look no further for evidence of this industry’s death than the Georgia Aquarium’s own statement.
Because of the extraordinary, long-term care beluga whales receive at accredited zoological organizations like Georgia Aquarium, this birth is significant as it is the first viable calf to be born from parents who were born in human care. Maris was born at the New York Aquarium in 1994, and the father, Beethoven, was born at SeaWorld San Antonio in 1992.
Here the Georgia Aquarium revealed that there has not yet been a beluga calf successfully born in captivity who was born to parents who were both born in captivity. I hope you got that. Not one. Not a single successful birth to a captive-born couple.
We’ll tell you the truth now. Even though the Georgia Aquarium was elated to announce that Maris’ second calf was considered “viable” – a significant milestone in the ongoing “experiment” to figure out how to breed captive beluga whale calves – the calf died after only 26 days in the tank at the Georgia Aquarium. In the run-up to both of Maris’ calves’ births, the Georgia Aquarium spent far more time pointing out the high mortality rate, even among wild beluga whales, for first-born calves, and, as far as I can tell, told the public this significant factoid (that not once had a calf born of two captive-born beluga whales survived) only after they thought they had one who would survive. So, why the consistent omission of this significant fact? Notably, they did not mention it when the calf died, demurring to the “statistical probability of survival.” Is this just another example of the “smoke and mirrors” that Judge Totenberg observed on the part of the Georgia Aquarium (Georgia Aquarium v Pritzker, at page 98)?
Nowhere in the recent statements to the press does the Georgia Aquarium acknowledge this significant fact.
So, what to do? Capture! Import! It is little wonder, then, that the Georgia Aquarium took the unprecedented initiative to spearhead an effort to import 18 wild-caught belugas into the United States to add to the U.S. broodstock. Eighteen: more than all the wild-caught beluga whales currently-held in the United States. To allow more successful breeding. To maintain an industry. To continue to feed the public the notion that it has a “right” to see them in tanks. To “love” them so much that visitors will once again grace the turnstiles of the aquarium, season pass or no.
But right? Entitlement? As correctly and succinctly summarized by Judge Amy Totenberg in her Order in the case of Georgia Aquarium v Pritzker, at page 76:
In addition, Georgia Aquarium’s arguments presume that — contrary to the express purpose of the MMPA — the limited exceptions for public display and scientific research permits in section 1374 opened the floodgates for unfettered importation of marine mammals. Nowhere does the MMPA “allow for the
continuing import of marine mammals for public display in the United States” or the unfettered right to such importation. (Doc. 55-1 at 49) (emphasis in original).
The Georgia Aquarium knows that the beluga whale captive industry is dying in the United States, just as surely as have all the calves born to two captive born parents. And now, the Georgia Aquarium has been schooled that it has no “unfettered right” to grab wild beluga whales to prop up the display industrym and it should stop sending any such signals to the public.
The future of the captive beluga whale industry is dying because United States aquariums hold only a handful of wild-caught beluga whales, and of these, only three are males.
- Ferdinand, M, SeaWorld San Diego, caught 1975
- Naluark, M. Mystic Aquarium, caught 1992
- Imaq, M, SeaWorld Texas, caught 1990
- Natasha, F, SeaWorld Texas, caught 1984
- Mauyak, F, John G. Shedd Aquarium, caught 1984
- Martha, F, SeaWorld Texas, caught 1988
- Crissy, F, SeaWorld Texas, caught 1988
- Allua, F, SeaWorld Texas, caught 1985
- Kela, F, Mystic Aquarium, caught 1985
- Naya, F, John G. Shedd Aquarium, caught 1992
This is certainly not the stable of studs and broodmares that the aquarium industry needs to build a genetically diverse, and therefore, robust, population of captive beluga whales, and the industry knows this. For this reason, and perhaps others that only it knows, the Georgia Aquarium tried to import those 18 wild-caught beluga whales. But its effort has failed, in failing to demonstrate that its import would not negatively impact the wild populations from which it may have hoped to extract fresh genes and better odds at reproduction.
It is impossible to speak about a dying industry without also coming to terms with the fates of 35 or so captive beluga whales in the United States. As those in support of the Georgia Aquarium often say, “whales die.” You just won’t hear me say, as they have done, “that’s life; get over it.” I grieve for both the living and the dying captives. But in particular, I grieve for the mothers who are used as part of a failing experiment to successfully breed a captive beluga whale born of captive-born parents.
So, how many more times must female captive-born beluga whales experience the death of a calf, being used as part of the aquarium industry’s Experiment in Breeding, before the public says, “enough is enough?” Will the death of Maris and her two calves be enough?
I do not know if it will, but it should.
Rest in peace, Maris.