(File Photo Courtesy Georgia Aquarium)
ATLANTA, Ga. -- The Georgia Aquarium is swimming in controversy as it tries to import 18 wild Beluga whales from Russia to help sustain the captive population in the United States.
There are 31 Belugas in six aquariums and marine parks in the US. The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta has four of them. If the permit is approved by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Arctic whales would likely be shared to support the research, education and breeding programs at each of the facilities.
Belugas are playful, social and fascinating to watch. There's no doubt visitors enjoy them.
"I personally think the whales are amazing. They're my favorite in the whole aquarium," said one guest visiting with her family.
But Georgia Aquarium's Chief Zoological Officer William Hurley says they need more if they hope to have a strong enough population for research and education projects.
"If you want to have enough of the right gender of animals, enough ages of animals to keep the population going then you're going to have to recruit in some new genetics," said Hurley.
Critics argue that's not what the proposal is really about.
"Although the Georgia Aquarium would like the public to think that there is a conservation purpose behind their capturing and importing these beluga whales, there's absolutely no scientific evidence for it. This is about ticket sales," said Dr. Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and animal advocate at Emory University.
Marino has become a voice for thousands who signed a petition urging NOAA Fisheries to deny the permit. NOAA says it has also received nearly 9,000 letters from its public comment period, most of them against the plan. NOAA extended the normal 30 day comment period to 60 because of the interest.
"Their lives are ruined in captivity. What will be damaging to these whales, if they even make it through the horrendous transport that they're going to be put through, is that they will be in a socially deprived situation where their autonomy is taken away," said Marino.
But Jennifer Skidmore, a fisheries biologist and permit analyst for NOAA, points out many who have commented on the case are against the fundamental practice of putting animals in captivity. Skidmore says that's not what's at question here. NOAA has specific guidelines under the Marine Mammal Protection Act by which to approve the requests, such as how the animals were captured, whether the facility has the capacity to care for them and how the animals will be used for educational opportunities.
Dr. Brian Davis, the VP of Education and Training, admits the aquarium uses entertainment at times to engage patrons, but says they do it strategically to build appreciation and knowledge of the animals.
"It's great to see them physically press their face and their bodies against the acrylic to get closer to the belugas. It's unmatched. You really don't find anything quite like it" said Davis.
The aquarium also contends the money raised from admissions and behind the scenes programs, help fund the non-profits research. Hurley says with the Arctic waters warming there are important questions about food supply, habits and health that need to be answered. The aquarium says it studied the whale pods in the Sea of Okhotsk for five years to make sure there was a sustainable population and that Russia was using humane procedures to collect them. The whales have already been captured and are waiting for approval to begin their journey to the states.
"If we don't figure out how to preserve their environment this is a lost world. I see this as an advertisement for trying to preserve those kinds of environments so we can all live together on the planet somehow," said visitor Christine Marwick as she watched the whales swim in awe.
NOAA Fisheries is reviewing the public comments right now and hopes to make a decision on the permit in February.
Both NOAA Fisheries and the Georgia Aquarium have created websites to help the community learn more about this issue.