Photograph by Michael Melford, National Geographic

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A beluga whale at the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut.

Photograph by Michael Melford, National Geographic

Opinion: A Welcome Halt to Aquarium Whale Imports?

Georgia Aquarium's request to import 18 wild-caught beluga whales is denied.

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.