Commentary by Sandy McElhaney, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

All five of the Beluga Whales at the Georgia Aquarium in January 2006.All five of the Beluga Whales at the Georgia Aquarium in January 2006
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
As an environmental activist, I have signed and shared hundreds of petitions online. I also have firsthand experience with writing petitions, most notably a successful 2012 petition urging Hong Kong Airlines to stop transporting wild dolphins captured from the infamous killing cove in Taiji, Japan. In only six days, this petition gained several thousand signatures, which led to the airlines pledging to never transport Taiji dolphins again. Of course, it helped a great deal that Gary Stokes, Director of Sea Shepherd Hong Kong, hand-delivered the petition to the airline headquarters. Several factors played into the success of this particular action, but of all the key aspects of a good petition, possibly the most important element is TRUTH. And so, when I saw a petition published on the Georgia Aquarium Website, “Act Now to Change the Fate of Belugas,” I just had to laugh at the lies and sheer arrogance heaped into that sad piece of drivel.

On June 15, 2012, the Georgia Aquarium submitted an application to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales into the United States for captive display and breeding at Georgia Aquarium as well as Shedd Aquarium, Mystic Aquarium and SeaWorld’s parks in San Diego, San Antonio and Orlando. The application ignited a firestorm of controversy, as noted scientists, non-governmental organizations and activists expressed loud opposition to the proposal. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) extended the application’s public comments period due to the massive public response, and ultimately received about 9,000 written comments on this one application. A public hearing was held in October 2012, and I was among the many voices who spoke against the permit. On that day I listened to all kinds of pretentious exaggeration from Georgia Aquarium’s talking heads, but the one statement that especially sticks with me is when Billy Hurley, Georgia Aquarium’s Chief Animal Officer (and former International Marine Animal Trainer’s Association (IMATA) President), had the audacity to say “ninety percent of America believes that we do a tremendous job.” It is hard to imagine that ninety percent of America has even heard of the Georgia Aquarium, and if they have, the public’s rapidly changing stance on keeping marine mammals in captivity does not add up with Hurley’s math. So, statements like this highlight the real mistruths spewed by this card-carrying member of the captive industry.

Months later, after weighing the facts and reviewing all of the comments, NOAA issued a decision to DENY the Georgia Aquarium permit on the basis of these reasons published online:

  • We were unable to determine whether the proposed activity, by itself or in combination with other activities, would likely have a significant adverse impact on the species or stock.  We believe that it is likely that total removals from this stock have exceeded the total net production on an annual basis resulting in a small, but steady and significant decline over the past 2 decades.  We believe the ongoing live-capture trade since 1989 may have contributed to a cumulative decline over the past two decades, and we considered this in combination with other past, present, and foreseeable future actions.  
  • We determined that the requested import will likely result in the taking of marine mammals beyond those authorized by the permit.  There are ongoing, legal marine mammal capture operations in Russia that are expected to continue, and we believe that issuance of this permit would contribute to the demand to capture belugas from this stock for the purpose of public display in the U.S. and worldwide, resulting in the future taking of additional belugas from this stock. 
  • We determined that five of the beluga whales proposed for import, estimated to be approximately 1.5 years old at the time of capture, were potentially still nursing and not yet independent.

 

And so, when Georgia Aquarium was denied its permit to bring 18 wild-caught beluga whales into the United States from Russia, what did the captive facility do? Billy Hurley and crew stamped their feet and posted a petition on their website. The argument is so preposterous that we thought we would share:

ACT NOW TO CHANGE THE FATE OF BELUGAS

With fewer than 35 belugas in accredited aquariums in North America, this population of animals in human care is facing certain extinction. That’s because there is simply not enough genetic diversity to promote healthy breeding, meaning that within a few decades, according to experts, the public will lose touch with these magnificent mammals. Don’t let this happen. In spite of great success in breeding belugas (18 of these animals were born in modern-day aquariums), there’s still much scientists don’t know about beluga whales – and still so much they need to learn. Sign the Caring Together for Belugas petition today to support Georgia Aquarium’s request for a permit to import 18 belugas from a robust population of whales in Russia to help support the zoological community’s efforts to protect and conserve the species. This program is critical to educate people about the need to protect belugas in the wild; conduct non-invasive study and observation to help conserve the species; and help sustain a healthy population of beluga whales in human care.

PETITION

Maintaining belugas in human care in accredited North American facilities is essential to the survival of belugas everywhere. Belugas in accredited facilities inspire wildlife conservation and allow for non-invasive study and observation that is vital to protecting belugas in the wild. I support the Georgia Aquarium beluga conservation project and the important research it conducts on behalf of marine mammals, both in its care and in the animals’ natural habitats. Both are important to ensure zoological experts know all they can to help the species globally.

We also encourage you to send a letter to the U.S. Department of Commerce to make your voice heard in support of the Georgia Aquarium beluga conservation program. Thank you for showing you care!

This petition is an insult to real conservationists working to defend, conserve and protect our oceans and the animals who reside within. After being informed by NOAA that the live capture of beluga whales from Russian waters contributes to a population decline of wild animals, Georgia Aquarium still continued to seek the import of the wild-caught beluga whales by bringing a lawsuit against the NOAA to have their permit denial overturned. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia has not yet made their ruling, but I hope they will see that Georgia Aquarium is putting profit over the conservation of this species, which the NOAA has already determined will suffer if the import is permitted.

The Georgia aquarium’s self-serving response is to argue that without the wild-caught beluga whales, its population of captive belugas will become critically endangered. No wild-caught or captive-born beluga has ever been released into the wild, so it is simply smoke and mirrors on the part of the captive industry to assert that keeping captive belugas will help preserve wild stocks. This is the big illusion that Georgia Aquarium and the captive industry try to sell to the public, but oceanic conservation happens in the ocean and not in a fishbowl. Of course, it was the great Jacques Cousteau who said, “There is about as much educational benefit to be gained in studying dolphins in captivity as there would be studying mankind by only observing prisoners held in solitary confinement.”

In its petition, Georgia Aquarium failed to mention that since opening its doors in November 2005, four of its eight belugas (3 wild-caught and 1 captive-bred) have died. In truth, the main contributor to the impending collapse of the captive beluga collection at Georgia Aquarium is the Georgia Aquarium. It was tragic enough that wild-caught Marina, Gasper and Nico died within a span of just two years, but the death of Maris’ 5-day old calf in 2012 also left a grieving mother swimming in the captive pool. Maris’ dead baby was the first captive-bred beluga at the Georgia Aquarium. The facility acknowledges that beluga whale pregnancies often have a low success-rate. They are correct. So what do they want to do? Put additional mothers through that heartbreaking ordeal! Though Maris conceived naturally (as naturally as it can be in the forced pods of captivity), most often in the perverse aquarium industry, employees masturbate male whales and dolphins, and the females are then inseminated. It is a vicious, unnatural cycle continued deceitfully under the name of conservation. In a statement following the death of Maris’ calf, Hurley commented, “Maris stood up to her end of the bargain, and we executed the plan we made. We will not give up.” Captive marine mammals don’t have the luxury of making bargains with their captors. Their lives are all about compliance: a trainer makes a hand gesture; the captives perform a trick and are rewarded with a dead fish. No tricks -- no dead fish. There is no personal choice. For the wild-caught animals, like the 18 belugas the Georgia Aquarium so desperately seeks to import, this is an especially bleak scenario. These animals were rounded up in a manner not unlike the dolphins in Taiji. They went from the pure joy of freedom, to captive pens, tube feeding and antacids. If they are condemned to the Georgia Aquarium, they will never again experience a depth greater than a fraction of their natural diving depth – ever.

The truth is that the Georgia Aquarium is a business and Maris, all of the belugas, the dolphins, the whale sharks and every last bit of coral in that building are considered to be products. Georgia Aquarium’s business is selling interactions with these “products,” along with t-shirts and stuffed toys. The cost of a general admission ticket to the Georgia Aquarium is $35.95. This includes admission to the Broadway-like AT&T Dolphin Tales. In the words of the Georgia Aquarium, this is “a spectacular musical theatrical performance highlighting the strong emotional bond between dolphins and humans.” Among the dolphin-performers is wild-caught Shaka, who was stolen from the ocean in 1988. You just have to follow one evening of the Cove GuardiansLivestream from Taiji to learn the truth about this so-called bond. Of course, the Georgia Aquarium really wants you to purchase a ticket to its “Beluga and Friends” interactive program. This will cost you $179.95 per person for 2 hours, but you get a souvenir towel and photograph! The encounter accommodates up to 8 people and is offered twice daily, 365 days a year. This equates to an income of $2,879.20 daily or $1,050,908.00 on an annual basis. Sure the Georgia Aquarium wants to import more performers from Russia. They receive no salary, no benefits, no overtime, take no vacation days and perform for dead fish — such a bargain! As an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Georgia Aquarium also wants to breed these belugas. Down the road, should they experience a genetic surplus like the Copenhagen Zoo did with their giraffes, perhaps they will choose the same “solution” chosen by the zoo – which was to execute an adorable juvenile named “Marius” and feed his remains to the lions. Maybe they will write a petition to do that, too…

PLEASE DON’T SIGN THE GEORGIA AQUARIUM’S PETITION. JUST SAY “NO” TO THE CAPTIVE SHOW!

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