Almost two decades ago the US aquarium industry—facing mounting public distaste with the practice—ceased importing healthy wild-caught cetaceans for commercial display. Since then, people across the globe have come to realize that no aquarium can replicate the wild habitat these animals need and their importance in healthy marine ecosystems. Many countries have banned the capture, import and/or keeping of whales or dolphins in captivity.
Sadly, here in the United States, Georgia Aquarium and its partners, SeaWorld and Shedd Aquarium, want to go against this tide of public opinion by importing 18 wild-caught Russian beluga whales for commercial display. They were complicit in the capture of these animals, who come from a population that is still recovering from years of hunting. The removal of such a large number of animals from the same area may result in the disruption of social groups and the loss of important genetic material and learned behaviors passed down through generations. Yet the Aquarium claims that the purpose of the import is conservation and education.
Meanwhile, just across the border in a Niagara Falls, Ontario, aquarium at least 40 belugas are languishing in reportedly appalling conditions. AWI asserts that if Georgia Aquarium and its partners really believed in beluga conservation, they would have offered to take some of these animals rather than support the capture and lifelong confinement of wild and healthy individuals from thousands of miles away.
When concerned citizens protested, Georgia Aquarium blocked their emails and removed negative comments from its Facebook page. NOAA held a public hearing on the issue, at which AWI testified. The Aquarium reportedly paid people to wait in line so as to fill the room and deny access to others.