This One Change Could Keep Wild Belugas Out of Tanks in the US

Animal advocates are applauding a proposal from the U.S. that could help protect wild belugas in Russia from being captured and doomed to a life in captivity.

The fate of the belugas in question, who live in Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk, stirred serious controversy back in 2012 when the Georgia Aquarium filed a permit seeking to bring 18 of them here for public display.

Had the Georgia Aquarium been successful, they would have been imported and split up between the Georgia Aquarium, and SeaWorld parks in Florida, Texas and California, along with the Mystic Aquarium and the Shedd Aquarium under breeding and loan agreements – making this the first time in 20 years that the U.S. allowed anyone to bring in wild caught cetaceans here specifically for public display.

Fortunately, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) denied the permit request, and despite repeated attempts to challenge the decision over the past few years, the Georgia Aquarium has thankfully remained unsuccessful.

While the aquarium was busy trying to get its hands on these belugas, animal advocacy organizations intervened in 2014 in an effort to get them more protection and ensure none are ever captured and brought here again.

The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), Cetacean Society International and the Earth Island Institute filed a petition asking the NMFS to designate this population of beluga whales as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The designation would make it illegal for anyone to import belugas from this population for public display, in addition to increasing research and conservation efforts that will protect them in the wild, which will also hopefully keep them from being captured and exported to other countries.

Now, they’re celebrating a positive announcement from the agency that it agrees they should get that designation.

“We are thrilled with this decision,” said Dr. Naomi Rose, AWI marine mammal scientist. “These belugas may be in Russia, but what we do here in the United States sets an example for authorities responsible for marine mammal protection everywhere. This decision sends a strong message that this country will not be part of an unsustainable and inhumane trade in live belugas.”

With an estimated population of little more than 3,900 these belugas are also now facing threats ranging from pollution and entanglement to subsistence hunting and climate change.

“The decision to designate the Sakhalin-Amur belugas as depleted should encourage Russian authorities to reconsider this trade and allow this beleaguered population to recover,” said Courtney Vail, campaigns manager for WDC. “Hopefully this action will serve as a signal that science and the precautionary principle can work hand-in-hand to guide international protection of extremely vulnerable populations of marine mammals outside of U.S. waters.”

The NMFS will now be accepting public comments for 60 days before finalizing the rule.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

This One Change Could Keep Wild Belugas Out of Tanks in the US

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