As first reported in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the huge and mighty Georgia Aquarium wants to import 18 captured Russian belugas and distribute them among American captive facilities because the belugas already in tanks in the U.S. aren’t making enough babies. Thanks to Bo Emerson of AJC for breaking the news, and thanks to a bunch of other people cited below for trying to rally dissent.
Georgia Aquarium, for shame.
According to Emerson, Georgia Aquarium has already invested 2½ years and $2 million in this previously unpublicized endeavor, and, far from being troubled by the news, the American public should welcome it — because, with climate change and all, who knows but that the belugas could soon be gone if we don’t start breeding them in tanks, as Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums executive director Marilee Menard put it, to “ensure the goal of a long-term, sustainable population for decades to come.”
“This is where we put our money where our mouth is,” Georgia Aquarium’s chief zoological officer William Hurley said. “We want to fix this mess so that your children and grandchildren can see beluga whales.”
Georgia Aquarium couldn’t have come out looking much better if it had written the article itself, which isn’t surprising, really. As marine-mammal advocates know, many media outlets do use press releases from places like Georgia Aquarium and SeaWorld as the basis if not sole source of their captive-display industry news — so matter-of-factly that they often don’t even bother to catch and change telltale industry lingo, like “in human care,” the industry’s preferred euphemism for “captivity.” Watch for it.
Not to single out AJC because it’s certainly not the only offender, but to take another example of how the media too often lets the industry control industry news, when a beluga calf born at Georgia Aquarium to a first-time mom named Maris died five days after birth on May 23, 2012, AJC was one of a number of news outlets that re-reported a statement made in Georgia Aquarium’s press release that first pregnancies usually end badly for marine-mammal moms—in captivity and in the wild.
First-time moms in the wild “do lack experience,” Rose told Michael Mountain of earthintransition.org, “but in natural cetacean populations, ‘aunties’ assist with births, primiparous females tend to have their own mothers nearby, and basically the ‘village’ raises all calves, first-born and otherwise. So, as long as the waters are not seriously polluted, the loss of first-born calves is only slightly higher than with subsequent births.”
Maris didn’t have her mother, Natasha, with her during pregnancy and birth. She could have, but she didn’t. Georgia Aquarium had shipped them and their male tank mate, Nico, to SeaWorld San Antonio on October 4, 2009, while it installed its new dolphin exhibit and expanded its beluga tank to accommodate a beluga interaction program.
Georgia Aquarium may or may not have intended to bring all three back together. But then Nico died suddenly three weeks after arriving in San Antonio and Maris seemed to get along with a SeaWorld San Antonio breeding-age male named Beethoven, so, to promote breeding, no doubt, Georgia Aquarium and SeaWorld San Antonio decided to send Maris and Beethoven back to Georgia together and leave Maris’s mother, Natasha, behind.
Click the image below to watch a short video of Maris’s and Beethoven’s arrival in Georgia.
It was the first time in their captive travels from park to park to park to park that Natasha and Maris had been separated. Natasha was captured off Manitoba in July 1984. Maris, her second-born and only daughter, is currently the second-oldest surviving captive-born beluga at age 18 after Beethoven, now almost 20. Most captive-borns die much younger.
That would seem to speak well of Natasha’s mothering abilities and the comfort she might have provided Maris during pregnancy. Instead, because they were separated, human trainers tried to prepare Maris for motherhood.
Would things have gone differently if Natasha had been there?
But back to Bo Emerson’s AJC story about Georgia Aquarium’s plans to import 18 belugas captured in Russia. Again, the press release-like nature of the story isn’t surprising. It was surprising, though, when, the day after the story was published, it disappeared. It’s back now, but for a while it was gone like it never existed.
Was it accidentally dropped? Intentionally pulled? Not supposed to run in the first place? Ever? Or not yet? Elizabeth Batt reported in a July 5 Op Ed on digitaljounal.com that, like others, she tried to reach Emerson but received no response.
One can imagine that Georgia Aquarium might not have been thrilled to see its plans publicized before the permit it needs to obtain from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA/NMFS) in order to import these belugas was safely in hand. Because, now that word is out, people who oppose these plans can try to block them.
It has happened before. As Candace Calloway Whiting reported last September, organized public outcry helped convince Ocean Park Hong Kong to abandon a similar plan to import Russian belugas for a new Polar Adventure attraction allegedly intended to help educate people about climate change. Calloway Whiting and others credited Hong Kong Dolphin Conservation Society with helping defeat that plan.
As for where Georgia Aquarium’s initiative stands, Calloway Whiting reports that NOAA says GA submitted its final permit application on June 15. Now, NOAA/NMFS will review it, maybe bounce it back if it needs more work, then do an Environmental Assessment of the possible risks of allowing the import: significant enough to nix the plan or not?
If NOAA/NMFS decides everything is in order, a notice will appear in the Federal Register, the documents will be posted on the NMFS website and the public will have 30 days to submit comments for and against.
Didn’t know about this Federal Register/public comment process? Most people don’t, which is how the captive-display industry and industry-friendly officials would just as soon keep things. So thanks again to Bo Emerson for spilling the beans.
Most people don’t know or give much thought to how wild belugas and other marine-mammals end up in tanks, either, which is also how the American captive-display industry likes to keep things.
Russia seems to have a different mentality. Capturing wild belugas is a business in Russia — unlike in the U.S. and Canada, where it has basically been banned — and the Russian marine-park industry doesn’t seem as obsessed with keeping the capture process under wraps. It even lets people film parts of it.
Thanks to Elizabeth Batt, for reposting a two-part documentary first broadcast in July 2010 on Russia Today that reveals more about the capture process than the U.S. industry wants people to know. You can view Part 1 (12:24) and Part 2 (13:14) by scrolling down to the bottom of Batt’s op-ed. You can also view them on YouTube here and here or click the images below.
Keep in mind that this two-parter isn’t meant to provoke. It’s meant to entertain a little, teach a little and make people want to go see captive marine-mammal shows. Imagine what a more hard-hitting documentary might reveal. Here’s a taste:
Thanks to Batt, also, for including a short video at the end of her post that Georgia Aquarium put up on YouTube last year to promote its new beluga encounter program: stand in the water with, touch, stroke and give commands to a captive beluga for $169.95 per person for adults and children at least five feet tall. To watch the 0:33 promo video, click below:
This isn’t how belugas are meant to live:
Click the image below to watch a sad 1:45 video:
This is how belugas are meant to live:
And this is how we’re meant to interact with them. Click the image below to watch a sweet 1:13 video:
And thank you to everyone who takes time to sign it.