The Ongoing Debate Over Captive Belugas

The Georgia Aquarium has recently drafted a proposal to NMFS (National Marine Fisheries Service) requesting permission to import 18 beluga whales previously captured in the Sakhalin Bay region of the Okhotsk Sea in Russia. The aquarium needs a MMPA (Marine Mammal Protection Act) Permit in order to move forward with its intentions to publicly display the animals. As of May, a decision has not been reached and the animals remain in Russia at the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station.

Those who are against allowing the import of the cetaceans cite the following reasons:

  • The capture of the whales was inhumane
  • The removal of 18 belugas from the Okhotsk Sea could potentially disrupt a clan, or matriline, as the female-led groups of belugas are known
  • Belugas are used to swimming over vast stretches of sea
  • The social structure of an aquarium is unnatural
  • These animals are intelligent, emotional, and the sounds of equipment (like filters) are damaging to the whales due to their highly developed sense of hearing

Beluga whales, or “sea canaries,” are known for their high-pitched whistles and striking white color. These talkative cetaceans live in the Arctic, not venturing further south than Alaska, but traversing the globe latitudinally. Belugas uses sonar to detect prey. 

Although the NMFS requires humaneness, the term is rather loose and up to interpretation. One NMFS official defined humane as “the method that involves the least possible degree of pain and suffering practicable.” However, the least possible degree practicable may still mean unhappiness for the belugas. It is observed that the life expectancy of belugas shortens in captivity. The question is whether a humane way to hold these special animals in captivity even exists. 

Here is a link to the petition against the Georgia Aquarium.

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