Tag Archives: beluga

Does the Georgia Aquarium understand “extinction”?

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
Will the Georgia Aquarium's use of the term "extinction" mislead the public?

Will the Georgia Aquarium’s use of the term “extinction” mislead the public?

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”.

From MarinelandCanada.com

From MarinelandCanada.com

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.

Beluga Whales in Chukchi Sea, Alaska. Photo credit Laura Morse, NOAA

Beluga Whales in Chukchi Sea, Alaska. Photo credit Laura Morse, NOAA

 

Because nothing says “Happy Holidays” like preventing dolphins from living in the ocean

Atlanta, Atlanta, Atlanta.  And now Atlanta Now, a  local advertisement for tourism and spending money in any number of ways in Atlanta, jumps on the captivity-is-cool at the Georgia Aquarium bandwagon.  In their latest issue, they remind us that we can spend money encouraging captivity for dolphins.  Because more and more captivity is what the ticket price purchases when one visits an aquarium that wants to import 18 beluga whales hunted and caught in the seas around Russia for a life of photo ops with Santa and friends.

A photo op for Santa and the Georgia Aquarium; a life of captivity for the dolphins. Atlanta Now! Magazine

A photo op for Santa and the Georgia Aquarium; a life of captivity for the dolphins. Photo by Atlanta Now Magazine

Maybe the Santa doesn’t translate to your holiday tradition.  So much the better for you, or at least the 11 dolphins held captive at the Georgia Aquarium.  But regardless of your tradition and whether you are celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Bodhi Day (yay), Ashura, the Winter Solstice or another event – you might yet be attracted by the man in the red suit to think that he was involved with something that was friendly toward the dolphin shown in the photograph.

Let me just say, no, he is not.  Scuba Santa is participating in an enormous marketing ploy to convince you that captivity is a-okay for dolphins, when, in fact, it is not. As the Humane Society of the United States and the World Society for the Protection of Animals and the marine biologists who have nothing to gain by keeping them in captivity have demonstrated, dolphins and other marine mammals are not suited for a life in captivity.  Why?

  • Marine mammals often breed unsuccessfully in captivity.  Shaka, a wild-caught dolphin held at the Georgia Aquarium, has apparently given birth four times.  Two of her babies died shortly after birth.
  • Marine mammals do not live as long in captivity.
  • Marine mammals survive and thrive by using sound to see their family, to find their prey, to locate other objects, including tools and toys that they select.  Imagine how confusing a concrete sound-bouncing chamber must be to a creature who uses sound to live.
  • Marine mammals are wide-ranging creatures, swimming up to somewhere around 100 miles per day and hundreds of feet deep.  How can a 25 or worse 12-foot-deep concrete tank provide a “life” that a dolphin needs to be a dolphin?  You’re right; it can’t.

What is a more appropriate holiday tradition?  How about actually learning about dolphins and whales and how they arrive and fare in captivity by sharing the following books and films – especially if you have a budding young marine biologist living under your roof:

The Georgia Aquarium as the world’s largest aquarium, may feel that there is no better way to say, “Happy Holidays!” than a visit to a facility that keeps dolphins and whales out of their native oceans.  But you won’t agree, once you know.  In fact, I’m betting that there are lots of you who, knowing more about the plight of dolphins and whales in captivity, would never again frequent an aquarium who held these regal beings in captivity and away from a life to which they have a full and vested right, by being alive.

Share life and freedom this Holiday season.  Happy Holidays to you and to all of life.

Comment period closes, public opinion period opens with a full-court “press”

Well done, America.  Well done, World.

At 8,906, the Georgia Aquarium’s application to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales didn’t quite make it to . . . THE MOST COMMENTED-ON FEDERAL REGISTER NOTICE EVER. But it was most commented-on Federal Register notice of a National Ocean & Atmospheric Administration import permit at least as far back as 2000, according to Jennifer Skidmore, who is the NOAA Fishery Management Specialist managing the Georgia Aquarium’s import permit.  NOAA is, as of this week, still receiving comments the old-fashioned way, via the mail system, so the count is actually even higher.  Pretty rocking result.

But during this deliberation period, the infotainment machine keeps humming, turning out story after story that implies validity in the Georgia Aquarium’s efforts to import wild beluga whales from Russia.  In one such story and video by 11Alive News, Billy Hurley, the Chief Animal Officer for the Georgia Aquarium, discounts the deep objection that the people have to ever capturing whales and dolphins for the aquarium biz.  But of course he would.  He likes to point out the millions of people come into the Georgia Aquarium.  What he doesn’t say is that those millions are lured in by advertising, by telling them, like the little boy in the video shown on Friday, November 4, 2012,  that the Georgia Aquarium keeps them “safe”.  That little boy, like the millions, believe that.

Beluga whales in the ocean in their natural family group

Beluga whales in the ocean in their natural family group

In contrast to the aquarium industry’s story machine, Dr. Lori Marino, Emory professor, neuroscientist, and the Director of  the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, commented on yesterday’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, reflecting the lack of understanding – on the part of either the reporter or Mr. Hurley – of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.  The article observes, inaccurately, that the “Marine Mammal Protection Act establishes that the display of belugas and other cetaceans can improve their welfare by educating the public about threats to the species, which can in turn promote conservation efforts. . .”  Not so.  The Act’s actual language – perhaps pesky for the Georgia Aquarium – states that permits may be issued, but only to those facilities that “offer a program for education or conservation purposes. . .” Whether the Georgia Aquarium’s dolphin show or exhibit fulfills the requirement of offering an educational or conservation program is a factual determination.  At least two aquariums, the National Aquarium and Sea Life Center, stated their objection to the issuance of the import permit to the Georgia Aquarium.

Becky Pugh, of Free the Atlanta 11, notes another of the fallacies in the Georgia Aquarium’s reasons for wanting the import, but about which the full-court press doesn’t inquire, “For example; why is it necessary to replenish the captive beluga stock in the U.S.? The U.S. has had belugas in captivity for decades. If they do so well, what would be the need to replenish them?”

Dr. Naomi Rose, a marine biologist, also commented on the article, pointing out that, “Respected marine mammal biologists oppose this import proposal, not based on emotion but because of concerns about the animals’ welfare during capture and transport, the impact of captures on beluga matrilines (family groups), and the disruption captures cause to the groups’ social relationships. More than 30 scientists submitted a comment to the National Marine Fisheries Service opposing this import proposal.”

Beluga whales in the wild

Beluga whales in the wild live in family groups, matrilines, that will be disrupted by the import. We just don’t know how much and no “tank” research can tell us that.

But if scientists know this, and more than 30 objected to the Georgia Aquarium’s import permit, why don’t Billy Hurley’s Millions know it?

Millions of people are lured by advertising into eating, drinking, smoking, and even wearing against their better interest.  Anyone who survived the 80s knows that we can convinced of just about anything.  80s hair?  Nuff said.  That

We were convinced that 80s hair was attractive

If they convinced you that 80s hair was cool, do you doubt they can convince you that keeping dolphins and whales in aquariums has value?

Mister Hurley finds attendance numbers indicative of anything other than 80s hair marketing tells me that, once again, he is not thinking about the marine creatures who have been entrusted into his care, but is looking at numbers and box office and return on investment for their “assets“.

So, what is the Georgia Aquarium teaching?  What is the 80s hair marketing, as pronounced at the Georgia Aquarium, teaching the public that crosses its doors?

By my count in the 11Alive news story, visitors at the beluga tank learned

  1. that whales jump up and go back down;
  2. that whales are playful, social and fascinating to watch;
  3. that the point is to have a “favorite” in the aquarium;
  4. that it is trying to ensure research and educational opportunities (maybe the definition of “research” is a little skewed here, too, if you get my drift);
  5. that aquariums keep the whales safe (I’m imagining that the Georgia Aquarium isn’t telling the story about the nearly 50% mortality of belugas in captivity in the U.S.);
  6. that whales in an aquarium translates to preserving their natural, marine environment

An older home video shot at the Georgia Aquarium, but no longer available, showed that the Georgia Aquarium experience taught children that dolphin ownership was okayand that wanting to own one, to have one in his own pool, was acceptable.  That’s what keeping whales and dolphins in captivity teaches our children – not conservation.

As to the Georgia Aquarium’s attempts to link research or conservation with this import, Dr. Rose pointed out in her comment ” . . . there is no logical link to [the Georgia Aquarium’s] support for research and this import proposal.  It can support field work and even captive research without actually displaying belugas itself.”

As we await the decision by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s decision on the Georgia Aquarium’s beluga whale import permit application, educate yourself about marine  mammal captivity.  Recognize that what people are learning is of insufficient value to offset the right of these self-aware creatures to continue to live in their families and community groups in the wide expanse of the ocean.

Continue to object to the beluga import.  Write letters to your local newspapers, wherever you live.  Leave comments on any newspaper articles – as did those who commented on the AJC article – so that the public has an opportunity to hear why the import permit is unacceptable.  Speak out. Be heard.  Or the full-court “press” will continue and Billy Hurley will throw you in with his millions, saying that you support keeping these majestic ocean-swelling beings in captivity.

Georgia Aquarium Beluga whales in the wild

The Public Opinion Period is wide open.  Write letters to your local newspapers world over, and let them know that you do not support the Georgia Aquarium’s import proposal and that it should never be acceptable for us to remove whales from their home to live in a concrete tank.

 

 

STOP THE BELUGA IMPORT – a few observations

Here are a few observations about the Georgia Aquarium’s application to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales from Russia, and why we must stop this atrocity, which, if allowed, will involve having ripped these 18 whales from stable family and community groups, and then transporting them across thousands of miles, and enduring numerous transfers, repackagings, detentions, on their way to their “initial final” point of detention.  Whew.  I say, “initial final” because the aquarium industry also has a practice of “sharing” their whales, transporting from facility to facility and back again.

Beluga whale being transported in sling

Full force of the sling is exerted against the normally completely buoyant and buoyed beluga whale. Looks rather like a straitjacket, don’t you think? Photo from lifeforcefoundation.org

This entire process is difficult for humans to understand.  While you and I might like to go “calling” on friends and relatives, try doing it taken completely out of your element, tied up in nets and ropes and slings, hear the rattling of chains, the fastening of locks as you are restrained, where your normally-buoyed body weight is feeling all the force exerted by gravity in air, against a solid surface, and then put in a small box.

For you, just so you might be able to experience the beluga transport on your terms, we’d fill the box with water, leaving just enough room at the top to allow you to surface and breathe.  You may have to hold your breath, though, as the water and you are jostled along the way.  And remember, before you sign up for this duty, you will be in there for many hours, perhaps days, until you reach the next place.

But back to the import permit.  NOAA must deny the application of the Georgia Aquarium to import 19 wild-caught beluga whales, under permit application number NOAA-NMFS-2012-0158, for reasons including the following.

Departure from long-standing policy and practice:  The long-standing policy and practice of the U.S. aquarium industry and of the U.S. government must not be reversed without a clear demonstration by the Georgia Aquarium and a determination of NOAA that the permit would meet all the conditions of the special exception under 50 CFR Part 216.  In addition to having to meet the standard burden under the law for an import permit, any such departure would merit a clear explanation on the part of NOAA and the Georgia Aquarium what “new information,” exists that would support the reversal of the 20-year history, what information and conclusions during those 20 years supported the then-policy and practice, and why in 2012, after this history, it elected to reverse it, as well as how that reversal was more consistent with intent of the Marine Mammal Protection Act to protect marine mammals than the 20-plus year policy and practice.

A review of this long-standing policy and practice reveals that, with the exception of two beluga whales, who were rescued from unsuitable conditions in Mexico City, Mexico, where they were held by Grupo Empresarial Chapultepec, S.A., under Permit File No. 1078-1796, there has been no import permit granted since prior to 1993. The Georgia Aquarium itself considers that import of the two beluga whales Gasper and Nico was a “rescue”,[1] and thus distinguished from the current application.  NOAA, as well, has stated that it does not consider that the last-issued permit under File No. 1078-1796 was of the same nature as NOAA-NMFS-2012-0158:  “The last such permits were issued to the Shedd Aquarium. A total of eight Pacific white-sided dolphins were removed from the wild in California in 1988 and 1993 under a five-year permit. Belugas captured in Canada were imported for display in the U.S. under permit in 1992.”[2]

This long lapse of such import permit applications indicates that the U.S. aquarium industry itself has long-recognized that capturing marine mammals from the wild is an extraordinary measure that must not be utilized by aquariums in the ordinary course of aquarium operation, even though allowed under special exception.  The aquarium industry, in fact, makes frequent use of representations to its customers during the course of its shows and in its literature that its marine mammals have been captive-bred and were not, with exception, captured from the wild.

Taking is not humane.  NOAA must find, in making its decision, that the process of taking is “humane”.[3] Any instance of taking must pass that threshold or the permit application be denied. The decision of NOAA must demonstrate how NOAA  made its determination that the capture was, in fact, humane, as to the specific 18 beluga whales, and must include a reference to any records that were considered as documentation of humane capture and in making that determination.

Further, the regulations[4] promulgated by NOAA to implement the Marine Mammal Protection Act[5] specifically prohibit the importation of marine mammals “taken” in an “inhumane” manner.[6]  “Humane” is defined as the method of taking, import, export, or other activity which involves the least possible degree of pain and suffering practicable to the animal involved.[7]  “Take” which rather obviously includes the hunting process as well as the capturing process, also includes the “restraint” or “detention” of a marine mammal, “no matter how temporary.”[8] The corollary, that the detention must also be humane, no matter how long, must also be demonstrated.

The burden is on NOAA to consider the facts as to these 18 beluga whales – that is, to “the animal involved” – requested to be imported into the United States and held in “detention” at the Georgia Aquarium and the other aquariums/marine parks involved.  That is, there is no generalized presumption of humaneness.  It must be demonstrated by the applicant for each animal and determined to be so by NOAA, for each animal.

Not only must this determination be made for each animal, it must be made for each aspect of “taking” as defined.  That is, NOAA must make this determination for each instance of hunting, capturing, detention, transporting, detention, transporting, detention, transporting, and detention – that is, for each step of the process, including the detention as a result of the importation.  As is discussed in other parts of this comment, the transport process is anything but humane.  The paucity of information that has been provided regarding transportation, clearly indicates that it does not represent the “least possible degree of pain and suffering practicable to the animal involved.”  The transport alone, therefore, does not pass the regulatory threshold of “humaneness” as to any of the 18 beluga whales, and certainly not each of the 18 beluga whales.

In contrast, the information which exists indicates that, quite to the contrary, the taking involved in the hunting and capturing was not humane.  This film by the International Fund for Animal Welfare,[9] involving motor boats, using ropes to restrain the whales while they are in the water, threatening their ability to breathe, exposing them to undue stress that will compromise their welfare and even result in drowning incidents, shows anything but a humane operation.  Blood is seen in the water at one point in the film.  Pointed and sharp instruments are used to subdue or control the animals.  While this film does not involve the 18 animals subject to this permit, the burden is not on the public to show that a capture was inhumane.  Rather the burden is on the Georgia Aquarium to demonstrate and NOAA to determine, based upon the record presented by the Georgia Aquarium or other specific information collected with regard to the 18 animals, that each instance of taking as described above was humane for each of the 18 beluga whales.

In evaluating “humaneness” in all of these steps as to each individual animal, while no hard line exists in the regulation to quantify the mortality numbers that would be instructive in making this determination, it would be reasonable of NOAA to find that a high percentage of mortality may indicate that one of those stages was, in fact, inhumane.  In the not quite seven years that the Georgia Aquarium has been open to the public, it has detained, held in “detention,” nine beluga whales. Four of them are now dead.  NOAA cannot ignore this factual record involving the applicant, the Georgia Aquarium.

Because the Georgia Aquarium has not made a demonstration of these steps for each of the 18 animals, the permit must be denied.  To the degree that there has been some additional information about one leg of this operation for any individual animal, this information may not be extrapolated to the other legs or instances of taking, nor can it be extrapolated to the other animals.

Beluga whales do not “do well” in captivity.

The application by the Georgia Aquarium claims that belugas live as long in captivity as in the wild and that high mortality of belugas in captivity “largely ceased by 1995.”  In contrast to this claim, two of nine captive belugas held there, according to NMFS records, died in captivity at the Georgia Aquarium in 2007.  One more died in 2009, and the young beluga calf born at the Georgia Aquarium on May 18, 2012, died only five days later.[10]

At the six aquariums which will be the holders of the 18 beluga whales if this permit is granted,  34 belugas that have died in captivity.  While one might imagine that the deaths occurred long ago, and that the aquarium industry was learning at least by from trial and error during its ownership of the beluga whales, that is not the case.  Twenty-seven have died since 1995.   Of 71 belugas that have been held by the six aquariums now asking for this import permit, 34 have died in captivity.  Yes, nearly half.  The 18 new belugas, if imported, will face a stressful, terrible life in captivity, and many of them will die prematurely.  How can taking an action that one can predict will result in a significant early mortality rate be considered, from any perspective, humane.

Belugas in the wild can live a maximum of 50-60 years, while in captivity, they rarely live beyond 30 and frequently do not pass 25 – the maximum age to date has been 45 years.[11] The Georgia Aquarium prepared a longevity analysis, which concluded that median and average life expectancies are “effectively identical” 49 in captivity and the wild (the value given for these parameters in either environment is roughly 20 years).  This is not borne out by the factual record, and raises the question of whether an institution that does not understand the mortality of beluga whales is able to ensure the “least possible degree of pain and suffering practicable to the animal involved,”[12] as is required during any instance of “detention” related to this import in order for it to be considered “humane”.

While marine mammals that are already held in aquarium facilities in the United States are beyond the scope of this import permit application, the evidentiary record of how beluga whales fare in captivity, and in particular, in U.S. institutions, must be considered by NOAA in its permit application evaluation.  As discussed elsewhere in this comment, NOAA must determine whether the import of these 18 beluga whales, and each instance of taking of each of these beluga whales, is humane.  These 18 whales were free and living in their native and natural communities until taken, and most were taken for the express purpose of import by the Georgia Aquarium.  The record of the Georgia Aquarium and the other aquarium facilities named in the Georgia Aquarium’s application, must, therefore, be taken into account, and the question answered whether detention in these facilities, as a component of the taking that originated in Russia, is, as demonstrated by a factual record, humane.

Note: There are other reasons related to conservation, education, and more discussion of these as I have referenced in earlier blog posts.  Please read, write, and submit your comment to NOAA by October 29, 2012.  STOP THE BELUGA IMPORT.

I’m still writing, just so you know.  But 6,319 comments have been logged.


[1] http://www.ajc.com/news/news/local/qa-beluga-whale-death-addressed-by-aquarium-chief-/nQY3H/
[2]
 http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/permits/sci_res_pdfs/georgiaaquarium_belugas_onepager.pdf
[3]
16 U.S.C. §1374(b)(2)(B)
[4]
50 CFR Part 216
[5]
16 US.C. Chapter 31
[6]
50 CFR §216.12
[7]
50 CFR §216.3
[8] 50 CFR §216.3
[9]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=47YY6f8J__4
[10]
http://www.ceta-base.com/lugalogue/ddl/ddl_ga.html, including Marine Mammal Inventory Reports of various dates
[11]
Willis, K. 2012. Beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) adult life expectancy: wild populations vs the population in human care. Attachment to Permit Application File No. 17324; U.S. Marine Mammal Inventory Report.
[12]
50 CFR §216.3

And the beluga whale factory farm era begins – NOT!

While the world is trying to stop the import of 18 beluga whales into the United States – and stop it we must – there is a bait and switch going on. A smokescreen. A red herring.  A man behind the curtain.

While we stop the import of whales that were caught from the wild, the aquarium industry thinks that it is two steps ahead of us on another front, as the Russians continue to capture beluga whales.  I’m just here to tell ya, aquarium industry and suppliers of sentient beings for profit and non-profit, you are not fooling anyone or at least not everyone.  Not that you are truly attempting to fool us; you just hope that we don’t notice.

But mark my words, we know like we know like we know, that the aquarium industry is on to their next project, called, “What If the Wild-Capture Import Fails.”  And perhaps they designed it to fail.  Perhaps that is why they asked for 18, and not 4 or 5.  And why the Georgia Aquarium didn’t do a better job at demonstrating that the capture was humane. Or actually answering NOAA’s questions about transport.  So it would fail. So they could justify their next chess move.

You see? If they can’t import these, the next doleful cry from the aquarium industry will be, “But, gosh, guys.  Everyone likes to see beluga whales at weddings.”  David Kimmel and Billy Hurley, of the Georgia Aquarium, were heard to testify at NOAA on October 12, 2012, that they had a “right” to these whales and that 90% of the American people support this effort, respectively.

Beluga Whale Factory Farms

There is nothing humane about this detention. It is, in fact, more like punishment without a crime, which, by definition, has never been humane.

So the next thing out of their playbook, says this gal who watches them, is that somewhere on this planet right now are the plans for marine mammal factory farms.  And maybe it has investors.  As if that would assuage the concern about “humane” taking.  Well, of course, it wouldn’t.  Because the definition of “taking” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act covers more than the hunting and capturing.  It also includes the transport and detention.  So when Russia captures these 12, with some for research, you bet your bottom dollar that the research will be a captive breeding program with dollar signs as its moral and ethical compass.  But which apparently doesn’t consider that the long-term detention and being used as breed stock is itself, inhumane.

To all who care to stop this practice, it is time for vigilance.

  • Step 1: Stop the beluga import.  We’re all on that.  Please leave your comment for NOAA by next Monday, October 29
  • Step 2: Stop ANY effort to import marine mammals for display.  Stay tuned in and tuned up.

Aquarium industry: the factory farming approach isn’t going to happen.  Not at any scale.  Not with the 18.  Not with their progeny or the progeny of these new 12.  Instead, start retraining and rehabilitating the animals you now have for release, if only to sea pens with more depth, real sea water, and greater expanse so that they can, once again, be more of the animals that they were meant to be, and not the wedding backdrop that you have made them.

What the Georgia Aquarium doesn’t understand

I thought I might make a short list of the problems with the Georgia Aquarium’s application to import beluga whales from Russia; issues that might indicate topics on which the Georgia Aquarium isn’t exactly expert.

Education: As Dr. Lori Marino has written, the Georgia Aquarium does not understand that for education to be valid, it must be both accurate and objectively demonstrated to have educational impact.  As she explains, the Georgia Aquarium’s program does not meet either threshold.  In contrast to some of the testimony in D.C. last week, while a visit to the beluga tank may assist middle school teachers in holding their students’ attention and inspiring a better essay, the increased enthusiasm for a day trip does not outweigh the cost to the captive whale OR of the negative ethical lesson to which the student was just unwittingly exposed.  Apparently the Georgia Aquarium does not understand this.

Conservation: Dr. Naomi Rose, of Humane Society International, has pointed out that it is nearly impossible to conceive of any valid study on a captive beluga whale which might indicate how, for instance, climate change might impact the wild beluga population.  Yet the Georgia Aquarium seems to think it can, as did Debborah Colbert from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and Chair of an International Marine Animal Trainers Association committee, who testified in favor of the permit last Friday.  The studies, in evaluating the impacts on the wild beluga whale population by such warming and changing environments would ask questions like:  Will the whales seek different prey? Move to a different basin? Spend more time in deep water? Less time? Reform into superpods? Break into smaller pod units? I think you can see that none of these questions can be answered in the concrete tank at the Georgia Aquarium.  But this, too, seems to escape their comprehension.

Life Expectancy: Whale and Dolphin Conservation and its campaigns manager, Courtney Vail, know that the life expectancy of the beluga whale in captivity and “‘on display’ will probably be a short one. Belugas in the wild can live up to 50 or 60 years. In captivity, they rarely live beyond 30 and frequently do not pass 25.”  Another fact of which the Georgia Aquarium seems to be unaware.  Or at least one would hope.

Transport/Noise: Bill Rossiter, of Cetacean Society International, has noted that the transport of the dolphins can present noise levels that are within the hearing range of the beluga far in excess of those safe for even humans.  For creatures who survive by using echolocation, sitting on a tarmac at these noise levels, as well as being transported for thousands of miles in aircraft that exceed acceptable noise levels for U.S. air space, is clearly something to which a beluga whale should not be exposed.  Yet another fact that the Georgia Aquarium appears to not know.

But this short list would not be complete without one last fact.  It appears that the Georgia Aquarium may also be, shall we say, geographically-challenged.  So maybe, just maybe, they don’t quite know where the 18 beluga whales are coming from, which might get them a pass on the transport issues.  The Georgia Aquarium, ever helpful as it cruises the individuals on Facebook, gave its recommendation to a query:

Georgia Aquarium doesn't know about beluga whale import either

This doesn’t really need a caption. Does it?

Maybe the Georgia Aquarium thinks they are “importing” the beluga whales from Russia, Ohio via Athens, Kentucky.  Hell, that makes as much sense as justifying ripping wild beluga whale communities apart and taking them out of the ocean to study – IN A CONCRETE TANK – the impacts of climate change.  Jus’ sayin’.

I hope that poor guy doesn’t listen to travel or route advice from the Georgia Aquarium.  I hope NOAA doesn’t either.   Tell NOAA that you oppose the beluga import.  The links above will give you all the understanding you need for your comment.  And some of the understanding the Georgia Aquarium needs to end this atrocity.

Humaneness of “taking” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act

My testimony at the October 12, 2012, public hearing provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, regarding the application of the Georgia Aquarium to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales.

Good afternoon.  My name is Martha Brock.  I am from Atlanta, Georgia, and I am an environmental attorney.  Why I am standing here today, however,  stems from somewhere else.  I was a volunteer at the Georgia Aquarium on the Aquarium’s opening day because of my love for marine life and the water environment.  I continued to volunteer for over a year.  Until the whales and the whale sharks began dying.

Because I am an attorney, perhaps, I love words and ensuring that we follow the meanings of those words as intended.  I apologize to those for whom this is infinitely boring.

The regulations promulgated by NOAA that implement the Marine Mammal Protection Act specifically prohibit the importation of marine mammals “taken” in an “inhumane” manner.

“Humane” is defined as the method of taking, import, export, or other activity which involves the least possible degree of pain and suffering practicable to the animal involved.

“Take” which rather obviously includes the hunting process as well as the capturing process, also includes the “restraint” or “detention” of a marine mammal, “no matter how temporary,” and I think the corollary must be, no matter how long.

The burden is on NOAA to consider the facts as to these 18 beluga whales – that is, to “the animal involved” – requested to be imported into the United States and held in “detention” at the Georgia Aquarium and the other aquariums/marine parks involved.  That is, there is no generalized presumption of humaneness.  It must be demonstrated by the applicant for each animal and determined to be so by NOAA, for each animal.

But not only must this determination be made for each animal, it must be made for each aspect of “taking” as defined.  That is, NOAA must make this determination for the

  • hunting
  • capturing
  • detention
  • transporting
  • detention
  • transporting
  • detention
  • transporting
  • detention

that is, for each step of the process, including the detention as a result of the importation.

Further, in evaluating “humaneness” in all of these steps as to each individual animal, while no hard line exists in the regulation to quantify the mortality numbers that would be instructive in making this determination, it would be reasonable of NOAA to find that a high percentage of mortality may indicate that one of those stages was, in fact, inhumane.

In the not quite seven years that the Georgia Aquarium has been open to the public, it has detained, held in “detention,” nine beluga whales.

Four of them are now dead.

I urge NOAA to consider the life-cycle, if you will, embodied in the term “take” and deny the Georgia Aquarium’s application to import 18 wild beluga whales.

Thank you.

So, for those who were not present at the hearing, let me just say that it was so good to be among those who are giving their all to protect the rights of whales and dolphins to live free lives, to live their life in the wild, as they were created and designed by this magnificent world.

Please leave a comment for NOAA on the NOAA website or by other methods explained on the website, expressing why NOAA must deny the permit, making it, you know I’m gonna say it, the MOST COMMENTED-ON FEDERAL REGISTER NOTICE EVER!

Beluga whales in the wild

Belugas in the wild live in familial and social groups with, quite frankly, more stability and longevity than those for most humans.

Has someone, uh, crossed the line at NOAA-NMFS-2012-0158?

Litigation support firms often hire temporary workers to assist in various aspects of legal matters.  From lawyers and paralegals to copiers and data entry operators to file managers and box movers (litigation can create a lot of documents, kind of like the number of comments on the Federal Register notice), these firms are hired by law firms to do some of the big volume work involved in litigation.  The litigation support firms are, in turn, hired by law firms, who are hired by others.

Aquariums and marine parks, too, hire lots of kinds of workers.  As we learned, during this year’s hearing concerning the Occupational Health and Safety Administration action against SeaWorld (which SeaWorld LOST), many of their workers have no special degrees that uniquely qualify them for work with marine mammals.  No, the trainers, by and large, are not marine biologists, as most elementary, junior high and high school aquarium attendees think, when they say, “I wanna be a trainer!”

Two hours before the hearing regarding the Georgia Aquarium beluga import permit

Are these “interested parties” in the sense of regulations developed for access to public hearings?

So perhaps it should come as no surprise, when the aquarium/marine park industry “marries up” with the legal, including litigation support, industry, that there might result an assortment of individuals involved who have not only no special qualifications (many of us have no more than a dogged commitment to learn from the actual experts, like Dr. Naomi Rose and Dr. Lori Marino the facts surrounding how marine mammals fair in captivity) for their involvement, they also have no awareness of the issues involved that would merit their description as “interested parties.”

Elizabeth Batt’s October 13, 2012, expose of the presence of unknown individuals standing in line really said it all, and described the marine mammal advocate community present that day.  Ric O’Barry was the first to inform us that those standing in line were not there on their own behalf, but seemed to be there as place-holders for the aquarium industry.  When approached to find out which organization they represented (I could not believe that was Mr. O’Barry said was true.  After all, that would be highly irregular if not more if they were paid to displace the positions of actual interested citizenry), I was informed by someone ostensibly acting in a role of “supervisor” that I could not speak to those in line.  That I could not ask them questions.

Well, of course, that is not true.  While it appears to have been true that they may have been under a restriction to answer, I was not restricted to ask.  This is, after all, America, which prides itself in not only protecting the right of free speech, it also provides a process whereby interested persons are provided an opportunity to have a meaningful role in the decisions of our government, just like the one before NOAA.  The Administrative Procedures Act and the regulations promulgated by NOAA are intended to provide the interested public with access to the process of permit review such as this one.  As stated by NOAA on the webpage devoted to this issue: “NOAA Fisheries will hold a public meeting to inform interested parties of the proposed import and solicit comments on the application and accompanying draft EA.”

It really does not take a rocket scientist to know that those standing in line were not “interested” in the subject matter of that public hearing, and the practice – whether common or not – of hiring individuals to potentially bar those “interested parties” from attending a public hearing?  Well, I’ll leave it at, I think it “crossed the line.”  Yea.  I said it.  Pa dum pump.

So who hired these people?

I’ve already phoned one marine park, whose answering machine offered their reservation line, in case I was calling to book a vacation to swim with a dolphin.  I’ll try back tomorrow.  And won’t be calling that reservation line.

Unlike the 70 or so people standing in line in front of me, I am interested in the outcome of this application.  And you should be, too.  Please submit your comment, on the NOAA website, in opposition to the Georgia Aquarium’s application to import 18 wild beluga whales from Russia.  As I’ve said before, make it the most commented-on Federal Register Notice ever.  And at over 5,000 comments, I think we might be there.

Keep them wild.  Keep them free.  Keep them out of the United States.

Beluga whales in the ocean

Beluga whales are not suited to captivity. They die prematurely in captivity. Simply looking at this picture, you will instinctively know why.

And the misinformation continues about belugas in captivity

Juno beluga whale Mystic Aquarium

Juno has always been “under glass,” having been born in captivity. This photo moment is a disgusting excuse for keeping wild animals out of their natural element. Photo by Andrey Antov, Solent News

The content in this “news” piece is offensive.  To me. To anyone who respects life.  To the truth.  It is offensive because it is, whether Mail Online realized it or not when it published this tripe, a piece whose one result is to create another “how darling” moment that justifies in the small-minded and those who would not examine the truth of the natural world and the falsity of the unnatural one, the thinking that the captivity of cetaceans is acceptable.  Because one little girl somewhere feels something about an animal that will never have a natural life, will never know the life that it deserves.

And this reporter, Ms. Edwards, has the audacity to suggest that the animal is “bonding” with that little girl.  Really?  While I wouldn’t argue that Veronica had some special moments, those moments must not, must never be purchased at the price of the self-determinative rights of another creature.  Veronica’s parents, who are likely otherwise intelligent, are inculcating in their daughter the ugly arrogance of homo “not so” sapiens, the thinking that wild animals for our amusement is acceptable.

I am nearly speechless.  And can only say that I trust that if you are reading this, you are not taken in by this misinformation.  If you don’t already know this, please watch this new film by Earth Island Institute Philippines, In Solidarity with Ric O’Barry, A Fall from Freedom, and this video by the International Fund for Animal Welfare that shows the process of how beluga whales, if not Juno’s parents specifically, were ripped from stable families in the ocean so that someone somewhere could say, “Ah, how cute,” and snap a few pics for a photo album, or newspaper fluff piece.

Parents, no “how cute” moment can ever justify cetacean captivity.  Even if it’s your little girl.  Correction: especially if it’s your little girl.  She deserves to learn the truth and beauty of respecting life.

The Most Commented-on Federal Register Notice Ever – Part Deux

NOAA Beluga GA Webpage

NOAA has created a truly swell webpage with lots of information, links to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the permit application and supporting documentation, & NOAA’s Environmental Assessment. Good reading.

Over two months ago, I urged an objective of having the Georgia Aquarium’s application to import 18 belugas caught in the wild, snatched from the Russian Sea of Okhotsk, be the most commented-on Federal Register notice ever.  Since then, so many people have written so many wonderful articles and blogs, giving great substantive advice on what is wrong with the whole notion of importing wild-caught beluga whales into the United States, for display in America’s aquariums.  Elizabeth Batt’s Op Ed: Public comment period opens for import of wild-caught belugas is packed with information and links to assist commenters with considering the import issue.

I’m not quite at “final comment stage” yet.  This little noodle is still noodling.

But what I will do is share the following:

As of September 11, 2012, over 1200 public comments had been submitted to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) regarding the Georgia Aquarium’s permit application!

Pretty awesome, I’d say!  And keep those comments coming, folks.  Jump on the comment train.  Use your noodle.  Seek advice. Reach out to the experts.  Write a substantive comment.

Even though I’ve got more noodling (I am apparently enamored of the word ‘noodle’ today) to do, one thing you might include in your comment is a question to the Secretary of NOAA to explain, in his Response to Comments:

  • the specific factual record on which he made his determination that the capture of these 18 specific beluga whales was “humane.”

He really can’t step over that one.  He can’t assume that just because a beluga whale survived the terribly stressful act of capture, that the capture process was humane.  Nope.  The law doesn’t allow him that luxury.  And so it is reasonable for us to ask the basis for that determination.  Was he there to observe the capture of each of the 18?  Did they videotape every moment of every capture, of all 18?  Or does he base his determination upon a generic certification of a process but one which was, in this specific instance, unobserved by any other than those who gain from the import?  Well, that doesn’t seem to be a reasonable basis upon which the Secretary of NOAA should make an independent finding.  Jus sayin’.  Especially when we haven’t allowed this in OVER TWENTY YEARS and granting an import permit like this would represent a substantial change in direction in U.S. and U.S. aquarium policy and practice.

In contrast to a finding that capture is humane, the EXPERTS observe that the act of capturing these animals for the captivity industry is inherently violent, as shown in this capture footage excerpted from A Fall from Freedom, film by Earth Views Productions, as well as this video that shows capture of belugas by the same business that captured the 18.

So this citizen is very curious about the Secretary’s factual basis – how he determined that the violence shown in this capture footage did not, in fact, occur at the Sea of Okhotsk.  Hm.

Here’s the deal: the Secretary of NOAA must find, in making his decision, whether the capture process is “humane”, (16 U.S.C. §1374(b)(2)(B)); any capture must pass that threshold or the permit application be denied. It is, therefore, important that your comment request (1) how the Secretary made his determination that the capture was, in fact, humane, as to the specific 18 beluga whales, and (2) any records that were considered as documentation of humane capture and in making that determination. Further, while NOAA is not empowered to change legislation, a challenge to the reasonableness of the definition of “humane” under the statute is appropriate to be directed at both NOAA as well as your lawmakers.

And as a bit of a sidebar, despite the words at the beginning of the NOAA website for this permit application, which sounds all hearts and flowers about how the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) “allows” for the removal and import of marine mammals for the purpose of public display, the actual wording of the MMPA carries with it quite a different tone and objective.  The MMPA states, “There shall be a moratorium on the taking and importation of marine mammals and marine mammal products, commencing on the effective date of this chapter, during which time no permit may be issued for the taking of any marine mammal and no marine mammal or marine mammal product may be imported into the United States except . . .”  So, while one of the exceptions is importation for public display, when NOAA states that it is “allowed” instead of it is “prohibited, except,” that seems to suggest an allowing rather than a prohibiting-with-justification-for-exceptions kind of mindset. Instead of a Protection act, the NOAA website language suggests an Importation act.  Wouldn’t you say?

This link to the NOAA website, and specifically to the page that NOAA created for the Georgia Aquarium’s import permit application, includes background information and a link to submit your comment online, as shown in the picture below, just above the address of where to fax your comment, if you choose to fax, to a Ms. Skidmore, who is also credited for taking the picture to the right of the beluga whale at the Georgia Aquarium.

NOAA Beluga GA Webpage_2

See that hot link www.regulations.gov – click and comment, and make sure that it notes that you are commenting on Docket No. NOAA-NMFS-2012-0158 (File No. 17324)

So, keep your comments coming folks.  Keep them reasonable.  Keep them real.  So that NOAA’s response must explain how its decision is consistent with the law.  Make this the most commented-on Federal Register Notice ever.