Today the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) denied a permit that would have authorized the Georgia Aquarium to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales from Russia for public display purposes in various aquaria around the United States.
The importation of wild beluga whales would have been a regrettable step backwards, since the United States has not imported marine mammals from the wild for purposes of public display for almost 20 years. Restarting the importation of captured wild cetaceans – as opposed to cetaceans born in captivity – for public display would have set an unfortunate precedent.
But even more important, the importation of wild-caught belugas from Russia raised serious conservation concerns. The Georgia Aquarium sought to import beluga whales captured in 2006 (two animals), 2010 (11 animals), and 2011 (five animals) from the Sakhalin-Amur region of the Okhotsk Sea in Russia. Belugas in this area were subject to intensive hunting until the early 1960s, and the population is still recovering. The status of the species is largely unknown and therefore cause for great concern.
Even more concerning, the Russian government has established quotas for live captures of belugas that greatly exceed the scientifically-calculated number of animals that could be removed annually from the area without initiating a population decline. Here, more animals were captured in 2010 and 2011 than sustainable. Worse, five of the beluga whales proposed for import – estimated to be approximately 1½ years old at the time of capture – were potentially still nursing and not yet independent. Young females of reproductive age were also targeted, meaning a reduction of reproduction potential in the wild population and potential jeopardy of important cultural, behavioral and social information that are contained and transmitted within matrilineal groups.
Taken together, all of these issues led NMFS to make the right decision and deny the permit.
Photo credit: NOAA