Tag Archives: Russia

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/
16 U.S.C. §1374(b)(2)(B)
50 CFR Part 216
16 US.C. Chapter 31
50 CFR §216.12
50 CFR §216.3
[8] 50 CFR §216.3
http://www.ceta-base.com/lugalogue/ddl/ddl_ga.html, including Marine Mammal Inventory Reports of various dates
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.
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.

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.