Rebuttal to Georgia Aquarium's Beluga Import Project Media Kit, Released on June 22, 2016

By Naomi A. Rose, Ph.D., Animal Welfare Institute

Introduction

On June 22, 2016, Georgia Aquarium announced that it will no longer acquire any cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) for its exhibits from the wild. Along with this announcement, Georgia Aquarium released a media kit, entitled Beluga Import Project. While the decision to no longer acquire free-ranging cetaceans is commendable, it came too late for 18 beluga whales Georgia Aquarium ordered from a capture operation in the Sakhalin Bay-Amur River region of the Sea of Okhotsk, Russia. In addition, the media kit has numerous false or misleading descriptions, claims, and characterizations of the efforts, starting in 2007 and continuing until April 2016, made by Georgia Aquarium to bring these 18 Russian belugas into the United States.

In its June 22nd press release, Georgia Aquarium implied that it produced the media kit to accompany its announcement. However, on the first page of the kit, it refers to a recently released documentary, Born to Be Free, which premiered at the Sheffield Film Festival in England on June 13, 2016. A representative of Georgia Aquarium attended this premiere. The media kit appears to be more a response to the film than a supplement to the wild acquisition announcement.

Georgia Aquarium’s justification for the Beluga Import Project is predicated on an overarching argument:

“Without belugas in human care to serve as ambassadors for their species, future generations will not have the chance to create powerful, personal connections with these animals. These connections are critical to inspiring people to take action toward the preservation of this species and their natural environment.” (p. 14,[1] emphases added)

This argument continues:

“Maintaining a population of belugas in accredited zoos and aquariums is essential to the conservation of the species in its natural habitat.” (p. 14, emphasis added)

This argument is demonstrably false. There are numerous species not maintained in captivity, most often due to size or needs that cannot be accommodated by captive enclosures, whose conservation status is stable or improving. For example, from the same ecosystem in which belugas are found, the bowhead whale was commercially hunted to near extinction in the 19th century, yet has made a strong comeback through numerous conservation efforts. Bowheads are obviously not held in captivity (far too large) and indeed they are still hunted by native communities; yet, their recovery over the past 100 years has been strong and steady. It is clearly scientifically absurd to claim that maintaining a species in captivity is “critical” or “essential” to its conservation.

Indeed, it is fortunate that this argument is false, as many species, such as the bowhead, the narwhal (another Arctic cetacean), or indeed more than 90 percent of the biota on the planet, would be doomed to extinction were it true. Zoos and aquariums exhibit only a small fraction of animal species and many that they do exhibit are neither endangered nor threatened.

That Georgia Aquarium continues to rely on this argument as justification for its existence is frankly disturbing, as it is implicitly anti-conservation (philosophically condemning so many species to extinction, at least as a matter of logic, albeit not reality). Its persistence as self-justification is especially disturbing because Georgia Aquarium self-identifies as an educational facility—and indeed is required by law to be educational because it exhibits marine mammals, as the US Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) requires facilities that display captive marine mammals to offer “a program for education or conservation purposes that is based on professionally recognized standards of the public display community.”[2] To routinely violate logical principles and offer patently false information as the very basis for its existence disqualifies this facility as a true educator.

General Critique

Lack of accountability

Georgia Aquarium ordered the belugas from Russian capture operators before acquiring a permit under the MMPA to import them to the United States. This was not necessary, as the capture operators in the Sea of Okhotsk—the only location globally where captures of belugas for display currently occur—take animals every year. That is, this was not a “now or never” situation; captures could have easily occurred after a permit was issued. It was unethical in a conservation sense, since Georgia Aquarium could not have been certain the import permit would be issued. Georgia Aquarium should have waited until the permit was issued before ordering the belugas.

Acquiring the animals before submitting the permit application could be seen as an attempt to prejudice the outcome of the application process. Acquiring the animals before acquiring the permit suggests Georgia Aquarium felt a degree of certainty about the outcome of the application process that was unwarranted—if permit issuance was a certainty, permits would not be necessary. Acquiring the animals before acquiring the permit makes all consequences, including the length of time the animals stayed at Utrish Marine Station on the Black Sea, the deaths of four animals between 2013 and 2015, and the uncertain future the remaining 14 animals face, entirely Georgia Aquarium’s responsibility. Yet Georgia Aquarium does not accept this responsibility but instead blames others, including NOAA Fisheries and animal protection nonprofit groups, for these outcomes.

In addition, Georgia Aquarium had no real contingency plans for any part of the project not going according to plan. This is simply unconscionable when the lives of 18 beluga whales were at stake. This became immediately apparent, when Ocean Park in Hong Kong, the intended interim holding facility during the permit process, withdrew from the project before the permit application was even submitted (but after the belugas had already been acquired and were being held in the Russian Far East).

In short, the plan to care for these animals during the permit application process went awry early on, leaving Georgia Aquarium without a suitable short-term, let alone long-term, alternative. The situation at Utrish Marine Station was clearly not suitable, as considerable money had to be invested to make it marginally acceptable, with four whales paying the ultimate price for this failure to prepare appropriate contingencies. Yet nowhere in the media kit does Georgia Aquarium accept any responsibility for this failure to make adequate plans.

Georgia Aquarium chose to acquire free-ranging, independently living, healthy beluga whales from intact social groups in the wild, for display thousands of miles from their native habitat. This choice led to the deaths of four whales and the uncertain future of 14 more. Georgia Aquarium alone is responsible for this outcome.

Mortalities

Between the summers of 2013 and 2015, four of the 18 belugas died at Utrish Marine Station. Georgia Aquarium refers to these deaths as “unfortunate losses.” An unfortunate loss is both unintended and unavoidable (the phrase is also generic, not specific to death; the word “died” is not used in reference to these belugas at all). The use of this generic phrase, when these wild-caught whales were only in these short-term holding tanks for a prolonged period due to Georgia Aquarium’s unwarranted confidence that an import permit would be issued, is another effort to avoid accountability.

Of greater concern than semantics, however, is the failure to perform necropsies on these four animals. Georgia Aquarium states, for each death:

“The first/second/final two of four unfortunate losses occurs. Cause of death is not fully understood because necropsies were not conducted and Georgia Aquarium staff was not present.” (p. 5)

Georgia Aquarium emphasizes its close contact with Utrish Marine Station throughout the project.[3] Yet four whales died, all while the court case outcome was still undetermined, with no necropsies. This is inexplicable and inexcusable, yet again Georgia Aquarium accepts no accountability for this failure.

Indeed, Georgia Aquarium implies through the language it uses that the lack of necropsies was somehow no one’s fault; clearly, however, either Utrish Marine Station was an appropriate place to hold beluga whales, meaning veterinary care was adequate (which means a necropsy would be performed on any animal who died, regardless of probable cause), or it was not. If it was not appropriate, then Georgia Aquarium should not have contracted with this facility to hold the 18 whales.

The fact that Georgia Aquarium staff were not present at the time of death is not relevant; cetacean carcasses are routinely held in freezers pending necropsy. Staff could have flown to Utrish Marine Station to conduct necropsies, if the Utrish veterinary staff were unable to do so. Georgia Aquarium staff flew to Utrish Marine Station twice a year to oversee the animals’ care; it is unjustifiable that they would not have flown there when an animal died.

Oral arguments in the court case were presented in August 2015, after the last deaths (noted as occurring in “Summer 2015,” p. 5). Yet, none of the many media statements Georgia Aquarium issued during the intense public attention focused on the hearing mentioned that four of the 18 whales had died. Indeed, Georgia Aquarium did not reveal these deaths at all until the publication of the media kit.

Finally, the 18 whales were individually identified in the permit application, with sexes and ages noted for each individual. Yet Georgia Aquarium does not identify the whales who died. It does not even say “a 3-yr-old female” or “a 5-yr-old male.” This omission is troubling.

Misuse of terms and inconsistent reasoning

The media kit is an exercise in doublespeak. Georgia Aquarium uses terms such as “extinction,” “conservation,” “collection,” “humane,” and “education” in inappropriate or inapposite ways.

For example, a section of the kit is entitled “Facing Extinction.” This section does not—as might be expected—address threats facing the beluga species in its Arctic habitat. It addresses the probable disappearance through attrition of the captive population of belugas in North America. “Extinction” is an ecological term used primarily in reference to species (or sub-species) in the wild. It is generally not used for the disappearance of a population of a species in the wild—the term in such cases is “extirpation.” To use “extinction” or “extirpation” to refer to a group of captive animals—who are not subject to natural selection, as this process ceases once animals are in captivity, where natural pressures no longer affect which animals survive to pass on their genes—is not educational; in fact, it arguably fosters science illiteracy.

Georgia Aquarium notes several times that the captive population of belugas is dwindling, currently numbering fewer than 30 individuals from a high of 40–45, although since the first specimens were displayed in the 1950s, there have been as many as 200 in captivity (not including those in China or Russia, where hundreds more have been displayed). Georgia Aquarium never raises the question of why this decline has occurred, whereas the population of captive bottlenose dolphins, for example, has expanded and stabilized, mostly with captive breeding.

As was noted by many during the permit application public comment period, the reasons for the captive population decline are (1) belugas do not survive well in captivity (Stewart et al., 2006; Lockyer et al., 2007) and (2) they do not breed well in captivity (Willis, 2012). Maintaining that individual captive belugas “thrive” (p. 47) in the face of a dwindling captive population is illogical.

If Georgia Aquarium had devoted nine years to a project to protect the Sakhalin-Amur population of belugas from exploitation by capture operators, then it could legitimately lay claim to undertaking conservation actions. In contrast, devoting nine years to an attempt to circumvent the strong regulatory safeguards of the MMPA, in an effort to import 18 wild-caught belugas into the United States so Georgia Aquarium and its collaborators could continue to display this species as a tourist attraction, is not conservation. Indeed, it is also not a “project” in the research or conservation sense—it is business.

Georgia Aquarium states, “It is important to note that Russia allows an annual catch quota of whales based on the abundance [sic]” (p. 8). It thus suggests that “legal” is equivalent to “sustainable” (let alone “ethical”), which it is not. Many natural resource extraction activities in many countries are legal but unsustainable. It is precisely because of this disconnect between legality and sustainability that policy instruments such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora and the MMPA require certain sustainability findings to be made before wildlife import and export can occur, regardless of whether such trade is legal in the involved countries.

Georgia Aquarium notes several times that it undertook a 5-year research program and claims that both the review of the IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group Panel (IUCN Panel), which was convened to assess the Georgia Aquarium-sponsored research project (Reeves et al., 2011), and the permit application to NOAA Fisheries were based on five years’ worth of data. However, the research program began in 2007. The IUCN review was in 2011. Therefore, the IUCN Panel reviewed only four years’ worth of data, from the 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 research seasons. The research team had not yet departed for the 2011 season at the time of the IUCN review. While this may seem a minor point, it speaks to Georgia Aquarium’s imprecision (a serious flaw in a scientific entity) and its ethics; it persistently mischaracterizes the amount of information the IUCN Panel and NOAA Fisheries had in hand before evaluating the status of the Sakhalin-Amur beluga population. In short, not only did Georgia Aquarium order belugas from the capture operator before it applied for an import permit, but it also applied for the import permit before its 5-year research program’s final results were in. Sound science does not anticipate research results.

Finally, Georgia Aquarium claims that the IUCN Panel “validated” (p. 4; p. 9; p. 10; p. 12) the research program’s results and implied that it agreed with the research team’s conclusion that the Sakhalin-Amur beluga population was “stable” (p. 4; p. 10). Neither is true. The IUCN Panel was not tasked with validating anyone’s research; it was tasked with “an independent scientific assessment of beluga research in [the] Sakhalin-Amur region and the sustainability of recent removals of belugas from the wild in the Okhotsk Sea” (p. 21, Reeves et al., 2011, emphasis added). Assessment is neutral; validation is positive. As for “stable,” the IUCN Panel actually concluded it was possible that “recovery of the Sakhalin-Amur stock has been slow and is still not complete, and that the present status should be considered at best as ‘unknown’” (p. 12, Reeves et al., 2011, emphasis added).

Specific Points

The following section responds to certain specific points made by the media kit:

Overview (p. 2)

Georgia Aquarium claims no one from the facility has viewed the film, yet “believe[s] the film to have a host of inaccuracies” (p. 2). Without having viewed it, it is difficult to understand how Georgia Aquarium could draw this conclusion. In addition, by the time the media kit was released on June 22, a Georgia Aquarium representative had viewed the film, at its premiere on June 13. This is an odd inconsistency.

Timeline (pp. 3-6)

2004 – Georgia Aquarium could have sourced belugas from Marineland Ontario, which in 2004 had several belugas, including several who were captive-born, and was willing to sell. In fact, SeaWorld, one of Georgia Aquarium’s collaborators in the Beluga Import Project, acquired three captive-born belugas from this source only two years later, in 2006. The failure to include any discussion of Marineland as a potential source of belugas is a significant and inexplicable omission.

In addition, Georgia Aquarium claims here that it searched “worldwide” (p. 3) for belugas to acquire and found that “no whales were available with one exception” (p. 3), the whales in Mexico City. However, later it states, “This search first led us to an amusement park in Mexico City” (p. 8, emphasis added). These two statements are inconsistent—one implies the search ended with the Mexican whales, the other that it began with the Mexican whales.

2007 – Capture techniques for tagging research are not necessarily the same as those for public display. Apparently no Georgia Aquarium representative ever witnessed a public display capture and thus Georgia Aquarium concluded capture techniques were humane based solely on potentially unrelated observations. NOAA Fisheries accepted Georgia Aquarium’s conclusion in its permit application; the denial was based on sustainability rather than humane issues.

However, video footage seen in Born to Be Free, of a recent public display capture in the Sea of Okhotsk (taken by a veterinarian involved in the captures), shows very rough handling of several animals. Several animals are seen with bleeding injuries during the process. The veterinarian states on camera that numerous animals have died over the years due to this rough handling and actually takes the filmmaker to the makeshift grave of a beluga calf he himself buried in a landfill in the town of Dunai, near the area where animals are temporarily held after a capture. This suggests either that research handling differs from public display handling and/or that the capture operators (the same individuals for both activities) are on their “best behavior” when under outside scrutiny, rendering Georgia Aquarium’s conclusion—that public display capture techniques are humane—meaningless.

2009 – Georgia Aquarium began a dialog with NOAA before the third year of the research project was complete or its results known. This was, to say the least, premature. Sound science does not anticipate research results.

2010 – The phrasing here, i.e., “Georgia Aquarium informs Russians of intent to import 18 whales so animals can be identified for Georgia Aquarium’s import permit application” (p. 4, emphasis added) is ambiguous. Did Georgia Aquarium order already-captured belugas? Did it order these belugas to be captured? Georgia Aquarium never clarifies this, presumably on purpose. Regardless, Georgia Aquarium should have identified appropriate or desired ages and sexes of animals in its permit application and, only after the permit was issued, sought animals to match these parameters.

2011 – Georgia Aquarium never mentions, here or elsewhere, the IUCN Panel’s caveats, including the following:

a.       “A second concern is the fidelity of belugas to summering sites, which elsewhere is known to be high at the level of the bay or estuary. It is not known whether site fidelity also operates at finer spatial scales. If it operates on a very local scale, capture operations long continued at one or two favoured sites where captures are easy and safe might deplete a local, but thus far unrecognised, community.” (p. 12, Reeves et al., 2011)

b.      “The Appendix by Hobbs … included results from a simple model of stock dynamics showing only a trivial difference due to the preference for juveniles; for example, an age- and sex-independent PBR of 29 captures became 28 when only 3-year-olds were removed. The sex ratio of catches is more significant. There has been a slight preponderance of females in the catches over the last few years, and if this preponderance were to increase, it would require a reassessment of the sustainability of removals.” (p. 12, Reeves et al., 2011)

c.       “… a value for PBR … used a non-standard method for estimating Nmin … The Panel did not consider this method acceptable because it falls outside the spectrum of algorithms tested during development of the PBR approach [citation omitted] and therefore its consequences are unexplored. Presumably such a method would, on average, generate larger allowable takes than the standard one would, and therefore it might not achieve the management objectives that PBR was designed for. Simulations using this method could be run to find out to what degree it meets the PBR objectives.” (p. 12, Reeves et al., 2011)

d.      “… it appears possible—especially in view of the total reported catches from 1927 to 1937, which would imply pristine numbers perhaps in the low tens of thousands—that recovery of the Sakhalin-Amur stock has been slow and is still not complete, and that the present status should be considered at best as ‘unknown.’ If this view is accepted, it implies that a recovery factor of 0.5 should be used in the PBR calculation.” (p. 12, Reeves et al., 2011)

2011 – The implication that Ocean Park in Hong Kong was originally going to hold all 18 whales until the permit was granted is troubling on several levels:

a.       This was never specified in the permit application. While the application is dated after this decision by Ocean Park, it could have clarified the original sequence of events for NOAA Fisheries, but Georgia Aquarium chose not to include it.

b.      It is difficult to conceive how Ocean Park could have accommodated all 18 whales during the permit process. Ocean Park’s polar exhibit (which has been repurposed, as it withdrew from the project and chose not to exhibit belugas, even though the exhibit was built) could have housed, at most, a half dozen animals (personal observation).

c.       Georgia Aquarium originally planned to send the whales to Hong Kong before even starting the US permitting process. It suggests strongly that Georgia Aquarium meant to prejudice the decision-making process, which sending them 4,000 miles to the Black Sea also strongly suggests.

2011 – To claim that “extremist” (p. 4) pressure caused Ocean Park to withdraw from the project is nonsensical. It somehow suggests that Ocean Park is not an independent corporation (is somehow beholden to extremist activists) or that Hong Kong has no laws prohibiting violent protests or threats. Later, Georgia Aquarium does not use similar language when describing SeaWorld’s decision not to accept any belugas from the project. This is an odd inconsistency, suggesting that somehow it is acceptable to criticize (even insult) Hong Kong civil society and theme parks but not US civil society or theme parks.

2012 – Georgia Aquarium does not mention that as many experts spoke out against the permit as for it at the NOAA hearing in October.

2014 – Georgia Aquarium implies that the documents “deliberately withheld” (p. 5) by NOAA Fisheries from the administrative record during the court case should have been included in the record. However, these documents were withheld under the legal doctrine known as deliberative process privilege. That is, an agency must be allowed to have frank and open discussions within its ranks, discussions during which an initial draft decision may be reversed, without fear of public exposure. Anticipation of such exposure might otherwise stifle a free exchange of ideas.

Georgia Aquarium is basically saying that NOAA did not have the right to change its mind. But this means that every initial draft decision (by some lower level staffer) would have to remain the final one (once it is considered by all levels), which is clearly absurd. Legally, if there is any evidence of “bad faith” or “improper behavior,” then the court can order withheld documents related to the deliberative process to be included in the record. However, Georgia Aquarium did not provide any such evidence, as the court’s ruling[4] explained. Georgia Aquarium simply argued that NOAA “suddenly changed course” (p. 12). However, doing so is both legal and ethical, as sometimes changing course is where discussion and deliberation lead.

Georgia Aquarium accurately describes how it asked the court to “invalidate the permit denial and to order that the permit to import the whales be issued” (p. 5, emphasis added). However, it is very rare for courts to rule in this way; ordinarily, when a court overturns a permit decision of this nature, it remands the permit back to the relevant agency. The agency is ordered to follow the law in its subsequent review and decision (which presumably it did not in the first instance, which is why the court ruled in favor of the plaintiff). Georgia Aquarium’s request for the court to order the issuance of the permit is yet another example of its inappropriate approach to the entire permit process.

2016 – Georgia Aquarium sent support for the remaining 14 whales through April 2016. It does not specify why this support was terminated, an obvious detail to include. It presents this information as praiseworthy (“Although Georgia Aquarium had no legal obligation to continue sending support …” p. 6), but without an explanation as to why this support was terminated, it is difficult to understand Georgia Aquarium’s motivations.

Searching the Globe (p. 8)

Here and on p. 16, Georgia Aquarium implies it was actively engaged in in situ conservation and educational experiences prior to 2005. It is unclear how Georgia Aquarium could have been actively engaged in anything before it existed. This claim seems to require greater explanation, but none is forthcoming.

Georgia Aquarium’s claim that the Sakhalin-Amur population of belugas will “continue to grow, even with the removal of individuals” (p. 8) is a gross over-generalization. While it is possible that the rate of capture removals was sustainable on its own in 2011 (but see the many caveats the IUCN Panel offered to this conclusion, above, and the increase in removal rates that in fact occurred after 2012, below), the statement made here ignores cumulative and synergistic effects of other threats facing these belugas, such as climate change or fisheries entanglement (concerns raised by the IUCN Panel but ignored by Georgia Aquarium). Non-precautionary statements such as this are inappropriate from conservation organizations or educators.

Beluga Whale Population Assessment (p. 10)

It is commendable that Georgia Aquarium undertook a population study of the Sakhalin-Amur belugas to determine a sustainable removal level. However, Georgia Aquarium did not wait until the results of this study were complete before ordering the whales from the capture operation in the Sea of Okhotsk (indeed, it committed to moving forward with their removal as soon as the research program began, and possibly before). Georgia Aquarium did not wait for the results to be complete before asking the IUCN Panel to review them. Indeed, the IUCN Panel’s review of these preliminary results concluded that more research should be undertaken before removing any more whales from the population, work Georgia Aquarium did not complete before committing to the removal of these whales and their import to the United States. Additionally, and perplexingly, Georgia Aquarium claims several times that all five years of results from the research program were reviewed and assessed by the IUCN Panel and NOAA Fisheries, when the former had only four years’ worth of results, available for its assessment.

Utrish Marine Station (p. 11)

Georgia Aquarium states that, following the results of the population study, it felt confident to move forward with “plans to acquire 18 beluga whales” (p. 11). However, these whales were already acquired—they were captured in 2006, 2010, and 2011, all before the end of the study (which continued through summer 2012) and the permit application was even submitted (June 2012). It is simply a chronological fact that acquisition of the belugas moved forward preceding the results of the population study.

Georgia Aquarium’s original plan to acquire these whales would have involved four transports (capture site to Nakhodka; Nakhodka to Black Sea (Utrish); Black Sea to Hong Kong (Ocean Park); and Hong Kong to United States). In addition, the original permit application described an extraordinary and unprecedented plan to transfer the animals at an airport (in Liège, Belgium), not just between planes but from one set of transport containers to another (on the airport tarmac). There was little if any consideration given for the welfare of these animals during these proposed lengthy and repeated transports, a process known to cause stress and trauma in cetaceans, including belugas (e.g., Noda et al., 2007; Spoon and Romano, 2012).

The description of the plan to send the whales to Utrish Marine Station for a “few months” (p. 11) before sending them to Ocean Park is not consistent with the plan described on p. 4, where it is implied that the whales would go to Ocean Park directly from Nakhodka, making Utrish Marine Station a last-minute alternative. It may be that Utrish Marine Station was always part of the plan, but the p. 4 description is ambiguous.

Georgia Aquarium states that it “did not collect these animals” (p. 11). However, it ordered at least 16 of these whales for collection by the licensed capture operators in Russia. To imply that, because Georgia Aquarium staff did not conduct the capture directly, somehow Georgia Aquarium is absolved of accountability for what happened before, during, and after the captures is disingenuous and unethical.

Again, Georgia Aquarium implies that its actions, sending basic necessities such as vitamins and medicines to Utrish Marine Station, were praiseworthy. However, it should not have been necessary for Georgia Aquarium to supply basic necessities to Utrish Marine Station, which cares for other marine mammals (including belugas periodically). Georgia Aquarium should not have contracted with a facility that did not have these necessities already. It is not praiseworthy to fill in massive gaps in a care regime with which one should not have been involved in the first instance.

Difficult Decisions (p. 13)

Georgia Aquarium states that “we’ve always done what’s right for the animals” (p. 13). Under no circumstances can capturing free-ranging, healthy animals—of any species—to be held permanently in captivity for any purpose be considered “what’s right for the animals.” There may at times be compelling conservation reasons for capturing free-ranging animals for research or enhancement (captive breeding), but the welfare of the individuals being captured is always at risk during and after capture, regardless of justification. Society no longer finds this risk acceptable merely for public display, a lesser purpose than research or breeding for reintroduction to the wild. This statement is blatantly self-serving.

The IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group has stated that “Removal of live cetaceans from the wild, for captive display and/or research, is equivalent to incidental or deliberate killing, as the animals brought into captivity (or killed during capture operations) are no longer available to help maintain their natural populations” (p. 17, Reeves et al., 2003). Georgia Aquarium ordered the whales to be captured. This was not right for the 18 whales or the social groups they left behind. What is best for healthy, free-ranging, family-bonded young whales is to be left in their natural habitat, with their families.

Georgia Aquarium states, “If we didn’t fight to bring them to the U.S. where they would receive the highest standard of care, their fate would be uncertain” (p. 13). The fate of the 18 belugas was uncertain from the moment they were captured. The certainty with which Georgia Aquarium applied for the import permit was unwarranted from the outset. The uncertain future of the remaining 14 whales is entirely the responsibility of Georgia Aquarium.

Georgia Aquarium states that “NOAA Fisheries violated their longstanding interpretation of the [MMPA], which specifically stresses the importance of caring for animals at zoos and aquariums in order to not only advance science, but to encourage conservation and awareness in the millions of guests who visit these organizations” (p. 13, emphasis added). NOAA did not violate anything, as the court ruled. But even absent a legal ruling, NOAA did not violate anything—the exemption for capture or import for public display in the MMPA is not a blanket exemption. It is a permitted exemption; that is, any public display capture or import must seek permission from the agency. This means that permission can be denied; it is not a rubber stamp. In this case, Georgia Aquarium did not meet the deliberately high bar Congress established for import permits for public display and thus NOAA Fisheries rightfully denied the permit. Georgia Aquarium is commended for conducting the research needed to determine a sustainable removal level; however, the results did not support the import. Georgia Aquarium should have heeded these results and not applied for the permit in the first instance (certainly not before the research program was completed). Georgia Aquarium apparently considered the research a box to check, rather than a necessary action to determine sustainability. If data indicate capture or import would be detrimental to the population, then the MMPA requires a denial, as the agency determined and the court upheld.

Georgia Aquarium states, “… we learned of some unfortunate health and wellness issues affecting a few of the beluga whales selected for potential import to the U.S.” (p. 13). Given Georgia Aquarium’s financial investment in Utrish Marine Station and its commitment to the 18 whales there, this statement requires greater explanation. How did Georgia Aquarium “learn of” these issues? Why were Georgia Aquarium veterinary and animal care staff not sent to Russia immediately upon hearing of these health issues? The lack of accountability for these four deaths, evidenced by the language used throughout the media kit and the lack of any detailed explanation for these deaths and how they could happen without more attention paid, is deeply troubling.

An Uncertain Future for the Belugas in Russia (p. 14)

Georgia Aquarium invested at least $6.5 million (it states in a letter appended to the media kit that it was as much as $10 million—see p. 47) in the Beluga Import Project. This amount, spent on removing 18 young, healthy whales from a population whose conservation status is unknown (Reeves et al., 2011) and likely depleted, and attempting to import them to the United States, should and could have been spent on in situ conservation projects to protect belugas from threats in their natural habitat. While Georgia Aquarium has committed funding to in situ research, this funding is a fraction of the amount it spent on trying to acquire the Sakhalin-Amur belugas.

It is telling that two public display facilities holding belugas that were either never involved with the project (Vancouver Aquarium) or eventually chose not to take any of the 18 whales (Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut) both have a long track record of conducting legitimate in situ and ex situ conservation and welfare research on belugas, including studies involving their captive animals as research subjects. Researchers affiliated with these two facilities have published more papers on belugas than the other seven facilities originally involved in the Beluga Import Project combined. Indeed, none of the many papers published by researchers associated with Georgia Aquarium listed in the media kit used the belugas at Georgia Aquarium as research subjects.

Conservation (p. 15-16)

It is commendable that Georgia Aquarium is involved in legitimate in situ research and conservation efforts. However, it fails to make a convincing argument that captive belugas are necessary for it to pursue these efforts. It could (and should) continue to support these efforts without displaying captive belugas.

Expert Bios and Research Bibliographies (pp. 17-35)

Dr. Gregory Bossart is a well-known and respected marine mammal researcher. He has published numerous papers on bottlenose dolphins and manatees, as his bibliography shows. However, he apparently has no beluga publications. Interestingly, Georgia Aquarium has no manatees on display, despite Dr. Bossart’s expertise with them. This seems inconsistent with Georgia Aquarium’s justification for the Beluga Import Project in the first instance (see p. 1 of this document). In addition, Eric Gaglione’s publication did not use captive belugas as research subjects; it was an in situ study. Despite Georgia Aquarium’s claim that “Beluga whales in human care also provide us many research opportunities that would be impossible to pursue with belugas in their natural environment (p. 14), the media kit offers no evidence that its whales have ever been the subject of conservation-related research.

Release of Cetaceans (pp. 36-41)

This document by Dr. Bossart is confusing. It outlines reasons why release of captive cetaceans is counter-indicated, in an effort to justify not attempting to repatriate the 14 remaining belugas at Utrish Marine Station (if they are in fact still there—Georgia Aquarium stopped assisting them in April 2016, so their current status or location is unclear). However, all of those reasons could also argue effectively against keeping cetaceans in captivity in the first instance.

For example, Dr. Bossart explains that captive cetaceans are held in regions separate from their native habitat and acquire microbial populations unique to the new region and possibly hazardous to denizens in the native habitat. This is correct (but the concern is mitigable—captive cetaceans held in tanks or some distance from native habitat can be screened for hazardous pathogens before being returned to native habitat, as captive-born individuals in endangered species reintroduction projects are); however, it is a two-way street. That is, when cetaceans are taken from, say, the Sea of Okhotsk and transported 4,000 miles to the Black Sea, there is a risk of exposure to novel microbes that may prove hazardous to those individuals. Yet, Georgia Aquarium and other facilities do not hesitate to justify this action.

In addition, facilities such as Georgia Aquarium claim that behaviors seen in their collections are natural, even when they are demonstrably not so. Yet, Dr. Bossart argues that behaviors and social interactions developed in human care need to be eliminated or they could cause unpredicted consequences if return to the wild is contemplated. This is another double standard. If the behaviors and social groupings seen in captive collections are natural, then Dr. Bossart’s argument fails. Of course, the behaviors and social grouping in captivity are not natural, making his point correct. It is the inconsistency of applying this argument that is of note here.

Dr. Bossart’s paragraph on the Keiko Project is simply incorrect. His opinion is based on a book self-published by an author making firsthand claims, but who did not witness the final two years of Keiko’s life, making any claims in the book about Keiko’s death unsubstantiated.

Finally, the references Dr. Bossart cites are either not relevant to the topic or are outdated (from the 1990s).

Roast Beef Productions and Born to Be Free (pp. 42-48)

Roast Beef Productions never denied Georgia Aquarium’s request to view the film Born to Be Free. Indeed, Mike Lerner offered to come to Atlanta to show some of the relevant footage (p. 45).

Georgia Aquarium’s claim that my “allegations” in the film were not based on fact is demonstrably false. Indeed, I made several statements of fact in the film and then offered my opinion on why these factual events occurred. I note that in the 12 years prior to 2012 (the year of the permit application), the average removal for public display in the Sakhalin-Amur region was 20 belugas (annual removals fluctuated steadily within 10 whales of this average; that is, some years 10 were captured, others 30, while most years around 20-25 were captured, with only one anomalous year—2007—when no belugas were captured) (Shpak and Glazov, 2013). The maximum in the past 12 years had been 33; this maximum removal was in 2011, the year when several of the 18 belugas for Georgia Aquarium were collected (Shpak and Glazov, 2013). This number exceeded the sustainable removal rate Georgia Aquarium’s sponsored research program determined, with which the IUCN Panel concurred (Reeves et al., 2011). In 2012, the year Georgia Aquarium applied for an import permit, the number removed was 44, more than double the average take (Shpak and Glazov, 2013). In 2013, when the permit application decision was pending, this take roughly doubled again, to 81 (Shpak and Glazov, 2014). These are all facts.

My “allegation” that this was due to the operators perceiving the United States as a market is my opinion, based on these facts. Georgia Aquarium is free to disagree with this opinion, but not to claim it is not based on fact. In addition, while it is true that the number of marine parks in Asia has been increasing (China Cetacean Alliance, 2015), this increase has been rapid and steady (arithmetic) and has occurred within the same time frame as the captures in Russia noted above, which were roughly steady and averaged 20 belugas annually until 2012. There was no sudden spike in facility openings or construction projects in 2012-2013, the years during which the rate of captures doubled and doubled again (exponential). Therefore, Georgia Aquarium’s claim that the increase in captures in 2012-2013 was due to a concomitant increase in Asian marine parks is not based on fact.

Conclusion

Both the announcement that Georgia Aquarium would no longer acquire marine mammals from the wild for its displays and the Beluga Import Project media kit appear to have been in direct response to the premiere of Born to Be Free at a film festival in England. While Georgia Aquarium’s policy decision is commendable, it comes after a court ruling confirming the denial of its import permit application for 18 belugas from Russia by NOAA Fisheries and the deaths of four of these whales. Georgia Aquarium’s self-serving and disingenuous effort to offer post hoc justifications for its actions are a grave disservice to the 18 whales whose lives it disrupted and harmed and to true conservation efforts for belugas in the Sea of Okhotsk and globally.

 

References

China Cetacean Alliance. 2015. Ocean Theme Parks: A Look Inside China’s Growing Captive Cetacean Industry. https://awionline.org/sites/default/files/uploads/documents/AWI-ML-CCA-2015Report-Web.pdf

Lockyer, C., A.A. Hohn, D.W. Doidge, M.P. Heide-Jorgensen, and R. Suydam. 2007. Age determination in belugas (Delphinapterus leucas): A quest for validation of dentinal layering. Aquatic Mammals 33: 293-304.  

Noda K., H. Akiyoshi, M. Aorki, T. Shimada, and F. Ohashi. 2007. Relationship between transportation stress and polymorphonuclear functions in bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). Journal of Veterinary Medical Science 69: 379-383.  

Reeves, R.R., Brownell, R.L., Jr., Burkanov, V., Kingsley, M. C. S., Lowry, L. F. and Taylor, B. L. 2011. Sustainability assessment of beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) live-capture removals in the Sakhalin–Amur region, Okhotsk Sea, Russia. Report of an independent scientific review panel. Occasional Paper of the Species Survival Commission, No. 44. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland. 34 pp.

Reeves, R.R., Smith, B.D., Crespo, E.A. and Notarbartolo di Sciara, G. (compilers). 2003. Dolphins, Whales and Porpoises: 2002–2010 Conservation Action Plan for the World’s Cetaceans. IUCN/SSC Cetacean Specialist Group. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. ix + 139 pp.

Shpak, O. and D. Glazov. 2013. Review of the recent scientific data on the Okhotsk Sea white whale (Delphinapterus leucas) population structure and its application to management. Paper presented to the Int’l Whal Commn Scientific Committee, Jeju Island, Republic of Korea, SC/65a/SM23, June 2013.

Shpak, O. and D. Glazov. 2014.  Update report on the white whale (Delphinapterus leucas) live-captures in the Okhotsk Sea, Russia. Paper presented to the Int’l Whal Commn Scientific Committee, Bled, Slovenia, SC/65b/SM14, June 2014.

Spoon, T.R. and T.A. Romano. 2012. Neuroimmunological response of beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) to translocation and a novel social environment. Brain, Behavior and Immunity 26: 122-131.  

Stewart, R.E.A., S.E. Campana, C.M. Jones, and B.E. Stewart. 2006. Bomb radiocarbon dating calibrates beluga (Delphinapterus leucas) age estimates. Canadian Journal of Zoology 84: 1840-1852.

Willis, K. 2012a. Modeling the population of belugas (Delphinapterus leucas) in Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquarium member facilities. Attachment to permit application, File No. 17324.



[1] All page numbers are from the Beluga Import Project media kit, unless otherwise specified.

[2] 16 USC 1374(c)(2)(A)(i).

[3]See, e.g., p. 13 – “We maintained regular contact with [the] Russian team throughout the process”; p. 4 – “Georgia Aquarium executes contract agreement for the Russians to provide care for the whales while they are managed at the Utrish Marine Station and establishes routine schedule of Georgia Aquarium officials to visit Utrish Marine Station to monitor wellbeing of animals and provide feedback to Russian team”; p. 47 – “We have supported the Utrish Marine Station through funded research, infrastructure enhancements, veterinary expertise, medical devices and other support as part of a total spend of more than 10 million U.S. dollars.”

[4] Interestingly, Georgia Aquarium refers to the court’s ruling, on the administrative record and on the merits of the case, as a “document.” This comes across as an oddly disrespectful word choice.