The Georgia Aquarium is proposing to import 18 white whales, belugas, captured in Russia's Sea of Okhotsk—three to keep for itself, the rest to distribute to five other marine parks.
This reverses a trend. There have been no imports of wild-caught whales or dolphins into the United States for 20 years. One constraint has been the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which requires that captures be humane and not endanger wild populations—a standard that the marine parks find difficult to meet. Another has been a rise in public opposition to whale captivity, a growing PR problem for the industry that may well prove existential.
The beluga proposal, predictably, has ignited controversy. Environmental and animal-rights organizations argue that these 18 wild-caught whales are destined for lives of isolation, sensory deprivation, and mental derangement. The environmentalists suspect that the belugas may just be pump-primers—Trojan whales, in effect—pawns in an industry strategy to resume the interrupted flow of killer whales, the prime moneymakers in marine theme parks.
The industry, for its part, argues that the Russian belugas were captured humanely, that their importation is necessary to ensure that the captive beluga population continues to grow, and that the display of belugas in theme parks is educational and thereby promotes conservation of the species.
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the agency responsible for approving the beluga permit, has concluded its hearings and closed the public comment period. The decision could come any day. No one believes that NMFS, or "Nymphs" as everyone calls the agency, relishes this chore. Responsibility for the welfare of marine mammals has always been an odd fit at NMFS, a branch of the Department of Commerce concerned primarily with fisheries. No matter which way it decides the beluga question, NMFS is certain to be sued.
"Beluga" is a slight tweak of the Russian word for this whale, byeluga, and it derives from byeley, "white." (Beluga is also the Russian word for sturgeon, which doubtless has caused much confusion, and many bad caviar jokes, in Russian conversation over the centuries.) The Canadian Inuit name is kenalogak, "white whale." The scientific name is Delphinapterus leucas, "white dolphin without fins." The whiteness of the whale, for all humanity, is its most striking and eerie feature.