Georgia Aquarium: future of belugas questioned

The Georgia Aquarium, which has been working for years to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales into the country, announced Tuesday it had given up the fight.

The decision not to appeal a ruling against the aquarium by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service, raised questions about the future of captive belugas in this country.

When the aquarium’s challenge to the decision was denied back in August, aquarium officials predicted that the belugas at North American facilities would likely “cease to exist” because of lack of genetic diversity in those facilities. There are only around 29 beluga whales held in aquariums and other marine facilities around the country.

The belugas that the Georgia Aquarium wanted to import were captured between 2006 and 2011 by Russian scientists in the Sea of Okhotsk, and are being held at the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station. Some have been held at the Russian facility for nine years.

The decision came less than a month after Maris, a 21-year-old female beluga, died suddenly at the aquarium. Her two infants also died at the facility, both shortly after birth.

Through an emailed statement, Mike Leven, CEO and chairman of the Georgia Aquarium, offered these answers to questions about the future of belugas in Georgia and elsewhere:

Q. What will happen to the animals that are in the Utrish station?

A. The Russian Academy of Sciences will work to find them permanent homes elsewhere in the world outside of the U.S. and their facility.

Q. Will this change the plans that the Georgia Aquarium has for displaying belugas?

A. No, we will continue our beluga whale program at Georgia Aquarium for years to come and continue to inspire and educate millions of guests each year.

Q. How much money did the aquarium spend on pursuing the project?

A. $9 million (this includes travel, maintenance, legal fees, etc.).

Q. What will happen to the beluga population in the U.S., without additional genetic diversity?

A. The implications of this would be devastating; if we are unable to sustain the population, we lose the chance to study these animals to learn all we can to help conserve and protect them.

Q. How long will it be before the captive beluga population reaches the end of viability?

A. Unfortunately there is no way of knowing. We do know that the current population of belugas in accredited zoological facilities is facing challenges as it looks to sustain due to the limited number of animals.

Q. Did the deaths of Maris and the two infant belugas have any impact on this decision?

A. No. The loss of two calves and the unexpected loss of one of our first beluga whales, Maris, is difficult and is proof that there is a need to understand beluga whales better and sustain this important population.

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