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Georgia Aquarium: Stop the Importation of 18 Wild Beluga Whales

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Please sign this petition to stop Georgia Aquarium from importing 18 wild beluga whales!

Some of you may have heard that in October, the Georgia Aquarium filed an application to import eighteen beluga whales from Russia. As of now, there are thirty-one whales on display in the United States. The Georgia Aquarium claims the importation of these whales will benefit research, education, to improve breeding efforts. The New York Times wrote an article shortly after this proposal, where they described what would most likely happen to these whales if they were sent to the aquarium.

“At least four of the nation’s largest marine parks, including the Georgia Aquarium, invite visitors to don wet suits and pet or be nuzzled by the animals for $140 to $250. The Shedd Aquarium in Chicago offers couples, for $450, a romantic wading experience that can culminate in a marriage proposal with Champagne, strawberries and the beluga as a de facto chaperon.”

The decision of whether the Georgia Aquarium will be allowed to import these animals rests in the hands of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Their decision will be based on conditions listed in the Marine Mammal Protection Act. For example, these animals must have been captured humanely, serve an educational purpose, and should not be removed from an endangered population.

So, the question becomes, is the ultimate purpose of this importation to increase awareness, or park revenue?

Let’s begin with where the whales are coming from. Russia’s Sakhalin Bay, in the western Sea of Okhotsk, is home to about three thousand beluga whales. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature concluded from this report that removing eighteen whales wouldn’t be harmful to the ecosystem.

But this assumption could be dead wrong. New research on cetaceans in the wild has determined that although a species may be genetically similar, populations contain very unique cultures. Whale and dolphin pods communicate in different dialects, have different social customs, and will behave differently than another pod living in the same habitat. New studies confirm that many of these behaviors are not passed down genetically (as was previously thought), but complexly and ingeniously communicated across generations.

Removing eighteen whales may not seem life-threatening, but reports of even one whale becoming stranded or distressed have led to massive whale beachings. Ingrid Visser, more popularly known as “The Woman Who Swims with Killer Whales”, is a New Zealand marine biologist who has witnessed several whale beaching incidents. “What changes a [single] stranding into a mass stranding is this really intense social bonding that these animals have. So if one goes up on the beach, then the whole group goes up, no matter what the peril is to them.”

If the eighteen whales removed from Sakhalin Bay belong to a large pod, these broken ties could lead to both the distress of the captured whales, and the ones left behind. But what probably causes the most mental stress is the capture itself. While the aquarium guarantees the process was very non-violent, history has proven this to be impossible. How do you “gently” capture a three thousand pound creature? Several documentations of dolphin and whale capture reveal the process is extremely exhausting and violent, requiring several people and boats to capture a single cetacean. Rick O’Barry, a former dolphin trainer and capturer, very firmly opposes the capture of cetaceans. “It's violent, it's kind of like rape and I've captured many, many dolphins. That's how I started, capturing dolphins for the ... Aquarium. You chase them down to exhaustion. You separate mothers and babies. You take the young.”

Until the NOAA makes a final decision, the eighteen captured beluga whales will remain in a research institution in Anapa, Russia. If they agree, all eighteen whales will be imported by plane to the United States—a process that has never been attempted before. Georgia Aquarium has no back-up plan in case something goes wrong. Not only that, but even though Georgia Aquarium would technically “own” these beluga whales, they would be housed in several different aquariums: the Shedd aquarium in Chicago, the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut, and the Sea World Parks in San Antonio, San Diego, and Orlando.

Lori Marino, a neuroscientist from Emory University who specializes in whale intelligence, says Georgia Aquarium’s reasons to import the whales are completely selfish. She claimed that while bringing in these whales would keep the captive whale populations “going a little while longer,” the overall action has “no scientific purpose.”

Beluga whales are used to swimming several miles every day, but cramming them into a small pool does more than just deprive them of exercise. Cetaceans have extremely sensitive sonar abilities that can help them identify food or threats in the wild. However, whales and dolphins that are placed in captivity live in very confined spaces, and some have to perform in front of hundreds of people every day. The loud noises produced from sonar bouncing off walls and shouting crowds are very stressful for cetaceans, and can lead to serious health problems.

These eighteen beluga whales belong in the ocean, where they can live out their natural lives with their friends and families. Please, sign this petition against the Georgia Aquarium, and tell the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that we do not approve of this needless importation.

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