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Humpback whale © Christopher Swann

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Georgia Aquarium Appeals Permit Denial: In the Name of Conservation?

It has been said that perception is reality, and that the way we look at the world often depends on where we stand. On Monday, September 30th, the Georgia Aquarium filed a complaint in district court in Atlanta seeking judicial review of NMFS’ recent decision to deny the Aquarium’s request to import 18 wild-captured belugas from Russia. The Aquarium claims they followed all of the rules under the US Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), and were unlawfully denied their right to import these whales. Their perception is that they have been robbed of their, as they believe, ‘very reasonable’ request to supplement their ‘beluga conservation program.’ However, the Aquarium’s propaganda doesn’t fool us.

From where we stand, the Georgia Aquarium’s permit request, and subsequent complaint and propaganda surrounding it, illustrate a much distorted perception of reality. The Georgia Aquarium continues their relentless quest to portray the violent and unsustainable extraction of a vulnerable species from the wild as ‘conservation.’ The reality of their plan is not at all consistent with true conservation efforts, especially since these beluga whales will not be, nor have any others ever been, bred to replenish natural populations. Rather, the beluga breeding consortium behind this permit seek merely to supply the Aquarium’s (and its partners’) personal collections.

Now a participant in the capture of belugas for international trade—trade that is recognized by scientific authorities as a real threat to the sustainability of Russian beluga populations that are targeted for aquariums worldwide—the Georgia Aquarium should more accurately be labeled as a threat to the conservation of beluga populations in the wild as they seek to perpetuate the devastating cycle of capture and trade. Furthermore, without a long-term and well-funded beluga research program in Russia, how the Aquarium can seek a legal remedy with straight-faced determination in the name of conservation is mind-boggling.

We were pleasantly surprised by the decision to deny the import permit because although the scientific evidence and legal authority were firmly on our side, historically, public display facilities have had essentially carte blanche approval for the import of marine mammals into the United States. As a conservation and animal welfare organization, we are deeply committed to the protection of beluga whales throughout their range, and strongly support NMFS’ recent decision to deny Georgia Aquarium’s request for a permit to import the belugas. The Aquarium did not meet their burden of proof, nor did their application meet regulatory and statutory requirements under the MMPA. NMFS used best available science to determine that the import could have a significant adverse impact on the Sakhalin-Amur beluga whale population and would likely result in the taking of marine mammals beyond those authorized by the permit.

We expected the Aquarium to fight back. After all, this was the first public display permit to ever be denied, and those belugas are worth a great deal of money—both literally, and figuratively, in forecasting their potential to generate revenue at the turnstile. We are disappointed by both the arrogance and entitlement displayed by the Georgia Aquarium and partners who seek to tie up potentially millions of dollars in a lawsuit that would be better spent actually protecting belugas in the wild.

In tandem with the filing of its complaint, the Aquarium released a video and other public statements that describe their right to capture, transport and then display these beluga whales. Beyond their fallacious claims that scientific data supports the removal of healthy belugas from a dwindling and arguably threatened population, there are other stakeholders that have rights, too. Just as the Georgia Aquarium believes in their rights to capture and display beluga whales, we believe in our shared right to see these animals protected in their natural environment, free from capture and free from being shipped around the globe for a deprived life in captivity.

What the Georgia Aquarium can never justify or prove is how the capture and trade in wild beluga whales from threatened populations equates to conservation and education. Their reliance on 2012 public survey data that suggests the public requires marine mammals in captivity to inspire conservation action can be directly countered by other survey data, including public research conducted also in 2012 by the Opinion Research Center (ORC) that indicates only a mere 26% of the general public support captivity. Furthermore, of more than 9,000 comments submitted during the public comment period, the majority opposed the import permit. Again, the view is very different depending on where you stand.

What the Aquarium’s public relations video does make very clear is that its primary interest is in enhancing captive beluga populations. Any past research the Aquarium has conducted on wild beluga populations in Russia consisted of field surveys to try to justify collection from dwindling beluga populations. To our knowledge, and despite their pledge to NMFS when they applied that they would continue these surveys, no research is currently being funded by the Aquarium in the Okhotsk region where these belugas face continuing threats to their survival.

From where we stand, the Georgia Aquarium and its partners are using the same tired and uninspired narrative that has justified these captive whale and dolphin programs for too long. True conservation and education does not result in the depletion of a species from the wild, but rather seeks to enhance it. Instead of seeking to protect its beluga collection, the Georgia Aquarium and its partners should turn this debacle into an opportunity to show the world it really cares about true conservation.

We call upon the Georgia Aquarium, and all other captive facilities, to voluntarily phase out their captive whale and dolphin programs and commit to no longer acquiring these animals from the wild.