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.
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”, 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.”
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”. 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 promulgated by NOAA to 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.” 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, 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.
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. 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,” 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.
 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
 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