National Geographic Daily News
Beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) in an aquarium.

A beluga whale at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut.

Photograph by Michael Melford, National Geographic

Kenneth Brower

for National Geographic

Published August 7, 2013

On Tuesday, NOAA Fisheries, after months of deliberation, denied the application of Georgia Aquarium to import 18 beluga whales from Russia. These white whales were to be displayed in Georgia and at several other marine parks. (For background, see "The Great White Whale Fight.")

For the multibillion-dollar marine park industry, the decision has implications far beyond the fates of these 18 belugas. It is part of a darkening picture for the industry.

This summer has been a rocky one for marine parks generally, as the NOAA decision followed—by just 10 days—the opening of the documentary film Blackfish, an exposé of cruelty, dishonesty, and worker abuse by SeaWorld, the biggest player in the business. The film details the deaths of three humans caused by SeaWorld's killer whale Tilikum, the biggest orca in captivity, and the company's cover-up of these homicides. (Related: "Opinion: SeaWorld vs. the Whale That Killed Its Trainer.")

Environmentalists and animal-rights activists, long opposed to the captivity of marine mammals for human entertainment, are hopeful. The end of the marine park business, some have suggested, is visible now on the horizon.

Sea Change

The August 6 decision marks a shift in approach by NOAA. The agency has a history of granting import permits like this one routinely, with little probing of the assertions made by the marine parks in their applications.

But yesterday's decision challenged all the assertions. In denying the permit, NOAA Fisheries found that Georgia Aquarium had not proved that the importation would not adversely impact the particular Russian stock from which the belugas were taken. It also had not proved that the import would not likely result in the taking of marine mammals beyond those authorized by the permit. NOAA determined, in addition, that five of the beluga whales proposed for import, estimated to be one-and-a-half years old at the time of capture, were potentially still nursing and not yet independent, and thus banned from import. (Read Ken Brower's feature on blue whales from the March 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine.)

Shell Game

The Georgia Aquarium application was the first in 20 years for importation of wild-caught whales into the United States. New belugas were needed because the marine parks, through their captive breeding programs, cannot keep up with attrition.

Belugas, like all other species of whale and dolphin, live dramatically shortened lives in captivity. For decades, the marine parks, in the effort to fill their pools, have eluded the provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act through a kind of shell game—a laundering of cetaceans done by moving them around internationally to obscure the places and circumstances of their capture.

This was the case with the 18 wild-caught belugas, which have been parked for years in tanks by the Black Sea so as to acquire a sort of patina of captivity. NOAA Fisheries' close attention to the details of the belugas' provenance is not an auspicious development for marine parks. We have reached a moment in the history of the whale-show business when both the public and the government seem to be souring on the concept.

Ken Brower writes about the environment and the natural world. He is a longtime contributor to National Geographic magazine. Among his books are Wake of the Whale, an illustrated biography of National Geographic photographer Bill Curtsinger, and Freeing Keiko: The Journey of a Killer Whale From "Free Willy" to the Wild. He lives in Berkeley, California.

13 comments
Michael Hill
Michael Hill

Greed.....Its the root cause of all that humanity has done to our planet. Look at the circus and the elephants. This is the same issue. Until we as consumers shun the industry and decide to give our kids a chance to right a wrong we have done unfortunately the future for these animals is grim.

DRK KRD
DRK KRD

quick question. is it better to be slaughter in the wild for no reason by humans or it is better to watched by humans in stupid windows like they are our t.v.'s. I perfer the watching live then watching at aquariums then watching the dead on discovery saying we could do something to save the beluga whale.

Jesse Bannister
Jesse Bannister

This is great news. This horrible practice must stop!

Akshay RAMOOGUR
Akshay RAMOOGUR

anybody knows where i can find the movie Blackfish..  :/

Radu Petrovici
Radu Petrovici

 As long as people will keep paying to see them "doing tricks" these animals do not stand a chance. The people are to blame more than the industry. 

Bill Doyle
Bill Doyle

Shikoh, I don't know what your barely legible comments have to do with the views expressed in the article.

Kevin Brooks
Kevin Brooks

Does anyone realize that if these whales are not brought here, the Japanese and/or the Russians will either sell them to someone else kill them and sell them to be eaten? 

Monika Ballew
Monika Ballew

One day we will look back and wonder how humanity could have been so blindly arrogant and cruel.  Sadly I doubt that day will come in my lifetime.

A J
A J

Parked in tanks in order to bypass regulations? How sad for these extremely intelligent, social creatures.

Has humanity no shame?

Danielle Murray
Danielle Murray

@Kevin Brooks I get what you're saying but essentially this does not solve the problem, housing them in captivity here is no different than jailing them in captivity elsewhere, They are beautiful, highly intelligent creatures that should not be taken captive, period. The bigger question here is how we prevent them being caught, How can we protect them and keep them wild and free?

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