Georgia Aquarium bid to import beluga whales to U.S. meets opposition

The Georgia Aquarium was mired in controversy a few years ago over plans to import wild beluga whales from Russia. Now, it’s part of a push to import five captive-born belugas from Canada for scientific research.

But plans also call for putting the belugas on public display and allowing them to breed another generation of captive whales. That’s sparking criticism from an animal rights group that has tangled with the popular Atlanta tourist spot before and claims such imports shouldn’t pass legal muster.

A U.S. agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, has scheduled a hearing for Monday in Maryland to gather public comments before deciding on the proposal. It’s also taking submitted comments through Dec. 2.

The Georgia Aquarium already has five belugas on display, including two added from other U.S. aquariums earlier this year. Belugas are known for adults' bright white color, melon-like foreheads and chatty social nature.

But some wild populations of the species are in decline.

Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut has applied to import the belugas from the Marineland Aquarium in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Its application calls for conducting research to gather information that could help in the recovery of belugas in the wild. Activities range from studying responses to human-caused stresses and sound to developing non-invasive techniques to assess the creatures’ health.

Georgia Aquarium would collaborate with and support Mystic’s research on the imported belugas, according to the application. “Mystic Aquarium does not have the resources to fund this initiative alone ….”

Three of the five belugas proposed for importation would be owned by the Atlanta aquarium. Mystic would own the other two. At least initially, all would be housed at the Connecticut aquarium during the proposed five years of research. But they could be relocated to Georgia, according to the application. And, in some cases, the Atlanta operation would have dibs on calves born from the acquired whales.

“There are no plans at this time” to bring any of the imported whales to Atlanta, Georgia Aquarium spokeswoman Jessica Fontana wrote in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Decisions about how many belugas ultimately will be at the aquarium “would solely depend on what is best for the individuals and group at that time.”

Naomi Rose, a marine mammal scientist with the nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute, praised Mystic’s research reputation. But she was critical of the Georgia Aquarium for its previous attempts to have wild captured belugas put on public exhibition. She suggested that the aquarium’s underlying motive for the latest import effort may be to breed more animals to put on display.

“Captivity is not humane,” she said. Rose contends it wouldn’t be lawful to import belugas descended from depleted wild populations to put on public display.

She also said she doubts Canada will approve export of belugas if they will be put in exhibits.

The Georgia Aquarium spent years attempting to have 18 captured belugas brought to various U.S. aquariums, including Mystic, hoping to create a self-sustaining population.

But NOAA denied a permit to import the creatures. Officials worried importation might lead to capture of more whales in declining groups. The Atlanta aquarium eventually dropped the idea and said it would not take wild-caught dolphins or whales. The announcement came shortly after the release of a documentary critical of treatment of captured belugas in Russia.

In the last eight years, several of the Georgia Aquarium’s belugas have died, including three calves and an adult matriarch who suffered heart failure. The aquarium and others in the nation have transferred belugas among each other. Two of the Atlanta aquarium’s early ones, who have since died, came from an amusement park in Mexico.

The Georgia Aquarium reports that it is on pace to host 2.8 million visitors this year.

Beluga whales in U.S. zoos and aquariums:

Thirty-one belugas are in captivity in six zoos and aquariums around the country, according to the latest listing by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Those include: Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta (5), Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Ct. (3), SeaWorld of California in San Diego (3), SeaWorld of Florida in Orlando (2), SeaWorld of Texas in San Antonio (10), and the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago (8).