Russian Whales Caught Up In U.S. Debate On Ethics Of Captivity

(AUDIO available under NC102921 & NC102511 & NC102904 & NC102922/23) 

(INTRO) A request by some of the United States’ biggest oceanariums to import 18 beluga whales from Russia has set off a stormy public debate over the legality and ethics of wild-animal captures for science and entertainment. If they’re transferred, the animals would become the first marine mammals (eds: includes seals and sea lions, whales and dolphins, walruses, etc.) caught in the wild and put on display in the United States in nearly two decades (sin ce 1993). But opponents are determined not to let that happen. RFE/RL’s Andy Heil and Tom Balmforth have more.

MOSCOW/PRAGUE, October 29, 2012 (RFE/RL) —

(INSERT AUDIO — Beluga whale — :10 — NC102921) 

Sailors for centuries have dubbed them “canaries of the sea” for their chirps and warbles. One bioacoustic scientist famously noted that they sounded “reminiscent of a string orchestra tuning up.”

Belugas, or white whales, are also among the first cetaceans (eds: whales or dolphins) to have been brought into captivity — in part because of their striking white appearance and engaging personalities but also because keepers say they’re quick to adapt and train.

That impression was reinforced last week with the emergence of audio recordings of a beluga named “Noc” (say: Nok) — without prompting — seemingly mimicking human voices:

(INSERT AUDIO — Talking Whale — :18 — NC102511) 

Noc was recorded during research in California in the 1980s, when scientists say they subsequently taught him to “speak” on cue.

But their capture or import has been illegal in U.S. waters since the passage 40 years ago this month (October 1972) of the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act (or MMPA). That legislation has helped many species of whale and other marine mammal to rebound from centuries of slaughter.

Now, the Georgia Aquarium (in Atlanta) and four oceanarium partners want an exception. They have plans to import 18 belugas for a captive-breeding project that they say will educate and inspire the public while helping to ensure “the survival of belugas everywhere.”

What has followed since their application was filed in June is a bruising war of words and principles, with public comments kept open an extra 30 days (until October 29) because of intense interest in the case.

Critics insist that even Georgia Aquarium’s 32,000 cubic meters of water isn’t enough for healthy, highly intelligent sea mammals born to travel tens of kilometers a day in the open ocean.

Jeffrey Ventre, a former whale trainer at the SeaWorld marine park in Orlando, Florida, is among the applicants’ staunchest critics:

(INSERT AUDIO — Ventre in English — length :50 — NC102904)

“I think it’s dangerous, number one because it provides a profit motive for these trappers in Russia to continue collecting these animals for the black market or for the open market, which is what it would become. I think once you open the floodgates (eds: allow something to begin), so to speak, what’s going to prevent them from going out and collecting killer whales, which have a higher market value than beluga whales? I just think it sets a dangerous precedent. I think it goes against the spirit of the [U.S.] Marine Mammals Protection Act, and that’s why it hasn’t happened since 1993. And the fact that these belugas need to be replaced is an indicator that the system didn’t work to keep them alive in captivity … [as] these marine circuses claim. So I think there are just a lot of reasons why it shouldn’t happen.” 

Defenders — including scientists commissioned by the applicants — say the loss of 18 animals poses no risk to an Arctic and sub-Arctic beluga population of around 150,000 animals.

But it would represent a huge jump in the North American captive-beluga population, currently between 31 and around 40, depending on the source.

It’s also just a drop in the ocean compared with the quota of 1,060 belugas set by Russian authorities for 2012 alone to provide food for indigenous minorities (Chukchi), scientific research, or entertainment.

The Russian beluga program has been accused by animal rights and ecological groups of recklessly catching all sorts of wild marine mammals to become a leader in a booming international trade.

It’s a charge that is disputed by Dmitry Glazov, a beluga whale specialist at the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Ecology and Evolution Problems who’s also one of six members of a national fisheries board that sets quotas on catches.

He says Soviet-era and subsequent studies indicate the population in the Sea of Okhotsk from which these whales were snatched is “growing.”

Moreover, having worked with whales in and out of the wild, he insists captive belugas aren’t so unfortunate:

(INSERT AUDIO — Glazov in Russian — length 1:18 — NC102922) 

“I can’t report that the animals are unhappy in captivity. They adapt well and are able to play. They live there longer than in the wild — I’ve studied it [and] they live about 1 1/2 to two times longer. Moreover, if it’s done well, there is a huge plus in that people who find themselves among nature and, say, throw things in the sea — these people, by interacting with these animals, come to understand what these creatures are. They realize that they are not pictures on TV or something abstract, but intelligent, beautiful, sociable and interesting animals that need to be looked after. It is difficult for people to understand this any other way.” 

That answer might anger opponents of captivity of highly developed animals like dolphins and belugas. But Glazov suggests the pressure to catch more wild belugas is growing and won’t go away anytime soon:


(INSERT AUDIO — Glazov in Russian — length 1:16 — NC102923)
“Over probably the last three years, since China is developing quickly and they are building oceanariums, they are requesting lots of these animals. In Russia, as strange as it sounds, there is quite high domestic demand for this animal, too. That’s why the number of commercial organizations that want to catch them and apply for permission to do so has gone up. And [on] the Sea of Okhotsk’s Tchkal Island — where the only team that is able to catch them is based — they used to catch 20 animals per year for transport or sale. Now they apply to catch 40 to 50 animals. However, in principle, for the time being, the weather, boats and so on don’t allow them to catch more than 25 to 30 animals.” 


The U.S. fisheries agency is expected to issue its decision on Georgia Aquarium’s request early next year.

In the meantime, the eight male and 10 female belugas at the heart of the application — some of whom have been languishing in Russian facilities on the Black Sea for as long as six years — will continue to wait.


About orcaconservancy

Orca Conservancy is an all-volunteer, 501(c)(3) non-profit organization working on behalf of orcinus orca, the killer whale, and protecting the wild places on which it depends. Successful Petitioner and Litigant in historic U.S. District Court case to list Southern Resident orcas as "Endangered" under the U.S. Endangered Species Act -- the first-ever federal protection for the population. Leader in the Springer Project, the first-ever successful translocation and reintroduction of a wild killer whale, a rescue that captured the attention of the world.
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