News & AnalysisMARINE CONSERVATION

Oh, Baby: Fight Brews Over U.S. Import of Beluga Whales

Science  12 Oct 2012:
Vol. 338, Issue 6104, pp. 180
DOI: 10.1126/science.338.6104.180

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A great white whale.

Beluga whales, such as this one on display at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, are a favorite with visitors.

CREDIT: GREG HUME/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

In the Bay of Sakhalin off Russia's eastern coast, 18 wild beluga whales captured in the Sea of Okhotsk are circling in sea pens, awaiting a U.S. government decision that could send them on a 12,000-kilometer journey. Earlier this year, the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta made a controversial request to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA's) Fisheries Service: It wants a permit to load the Russian whales into cargo jets and ship them to the United States for display and breeding in Atlanta and five other cities. The request is the first of its kind since 1988, and it is drawing extensive opposition from animal-rights advocates and some whale researchers. This week, the conflict is expected to get its first formal airing, with NOAA officials scheduled to hold a 12 October hearing at the agency's headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Growing up to 4.5 meters long, beluga whales are toothy, pearly white mammals that live in the Arctic Ocean. More than 150,000 belugas exist worldwide, researchers estimate; just one population of about 350 in Alaska is considered endangered under U.S. law. The creatures' whistles and chirps, and a playful tendency to spit water at visitors, make them an aquarium favorite. Their curious appearance has also inspired best-selling children's songs, books, and even a boutique.

Of the 31 beluga whales currently in captivity in the United States, only three were directly captured from the wild for the purpose of display—all from the Canadian Arctic in the late 1980s, according to NOAA records. The rest were transferred to their current homes from other facilities or rescued after becoming stranded, injured, or sick. That pattern reflects public opposition in the United States to capturing wild belugas and a growing recognition among scientists that the whales need more space and social interaction than most marine parks and aquaria can provide, says whale specialist Scott Kraus of the New England Aquarium in Boston.

The Georgia Aquarium, however, says it's time to revisit the issue. In its 15 June permit application to NOAA, it argues that importing the whales will allow U.S. aquaria and marine parks to increase “the population base of captive belugas to a self-sustaining level” that ultimately would “reduce the demand for wild-caught beluga whales for public display.” Studies suggest that there is a 56% probability that the U.S. population of captive belugas will decline over the next 3 decades unless it is “supplemented” by captures and breeding, the application notes. In part, that's because U.S. facilities have struggled to breed the animals successfully; the Atlanta aquarium's first captive-born calf, for instance, died this past May. The aquarium, which currently owns four belugas, says it plans to keep “approximately” six of the 18 animals and loan the rest to other facilities. Once in their new homes, the whales will help promote marine conservation among hundreds of thousands of visitors, the aquarium says, and enable scientists to pursue research that is hard to do in the wild, such as up-close studies of physiology and behavior.

Those are reasonable arguments, say some whale researchers. “This is a unique opportunity to learn more about the physiology of these important animals,” says Brandon Southall, a former NOAA bioacoustics researcher who supports the permit. Now a research associate with the University of California, Santa Cruz, Southall studies how marine mammals respond to potentially disruptive sounds created by devices such as military sonar, and he says work with captives could help identify ways of reducing threats. And “the data show that animals like belugas and bottlenose dolphins do breed in captivity,” says the New England Aquarium's Kraus, suggesting that aquaria “could theoretically create a captive colony, given adequate resources.”

Still, Kraus is one of many scientists who have doubts about the plan's claimed benefits. For instance, Kraus says that although aquaria can play a role in promoting ocean conservation, large marine mammals “are almost certainly not” necessary to get people interested. And there's no reason to believe that the difficult task of breeding captive belugas will get easier with fresh animals, says Naomi Rose, a biologist with Humane Society International in Gaithersburg, Maryland. She is also skeptical that research on captive whales will benefit their wild relatives, because the biggest threat to belugas is loss of habitat and food due to global warming. “I can't imagine what studies they could design in captivity that would address those concerns,” she says.

Such issues, as well as questions about how the belugas were captured and whether they can be transported and kept humanely, are likely to be hotly debated at the NOAA hearing. The agency has already received more than 4000 comments on the permit request and recently extended the public comment period to 29 October because of high interest. A decision isn't expected until January at the earliest.

In the meantime, some marine mammal researchers worry that the fight is a distraction from bigger issues facing marine ecosystems. “Every time somebody does something like this, there's a huge controversy,” Kraus says. But there's less public outcry about the numerous marine mammals that die after becoming entangled in fishing gear or the extensive impacts of development and pollution on coastal seas. “These are the things that are killing the oceans,” he says. “Eighteen belugas out of the Okhotsk Sea? That's kind of a drop in the bucket.”

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