By Felicity Barringer, The New York Times, October 8, 2012

A beluga whale at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. Photo: John Amis/European Pressphoto Agency

A proposal to import 18 beluga whales for popular interactive park attractions in the United States is drawing fierce opposition from animal rights advocates and others who object to their removal from the wild.

The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta has applied for a federal import permit on behalf of a group of marine parks, saying the aquariums need the Arctic whales for captive breeding efforts, research and education. Approval would end an import hiatus of nearly two decades that is rooted in misgivings about removing intelligent and social marine mammals from their native waters and their families.
Complicating matters, the federal government’s decision will be based not on bioethics but on the language of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which recognizes a benefit in winning the hearts and minds of paying customers who become attached to animals like the beluga, a facially expressive whale with a distinctive white hue.
Thirty-one beluga whales, some that are too young to breed and others that are nearing the end of their 35-year life spans, are now on display in the United States. Worldwide, a few hundred are thought to be in captivity.
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.
For Hal Whitehead, a marine mammal expert at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, there is not much need for debate. “We know that they are intensely social mammals with complex and lengthy migrations, and that they use a whole bunch of different habitats in different times of the year, and that they are acoustic communicators,” he said. “There is no way even the best captive situation has even the slightest approximation to that.”
But for some other experts, the research and conservation value of a robust captive breeding population in North America far outweighs any harm in taking the whales from the wild. While 24 belugas have been born in captivity at American institutions since 1994, including one conceived through artificial insemination, officials say the population needs greater numbers and more genetic diversity to thrive.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration plans to hold a public hearing on the import proposal on Friday in Silver Spring, Md. A decision by its fisheries service is expected early next year.
The agency has received more than 4,000 comments on the permit application, most of them negative. Many contain language drafted by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has encouraged its members to weigh in.
But in reaching its decision, the agency will rely mainly on provisions of the Marine Mammal Protection Act that authorize such imports for public display unless the animal was pregnant or nursing when captured, was taken inhumanely or was part of a population that was depleted or endangered. The law also requires, among other things, that the display of the animal serve an educational purpose.
The 18 whales were netted in forays in 2006, 2010 and 2011 in the Sea of Okhotsk off the Siberian coast from a robust population of 4,000 that plies those waters and is not viewed as endangered. (A population in Cook Inlet in Alaska is listed as endangered under federal law, however.)
The aquarium’s permit application says the whales were taken in shallow waters near Sakhalin Island. A seine net was cast around them, and they were conveyed to 40-foot-by-40-foot offshore pens that are eight feet deep and each hold six whales.
None were pregnant or nursing, none suffered a serious injury and none died in the collection effort, the application says. The 18 belugas are being housed at a research institution in the Black Sea town of Anapa, Russia.
But beyond those legal considerations, said William Hurley, a senior vice president of the Georgia Aquarium, marine institutions need a strong captive population for research that could help safeguard the beluga as its Arctic habitat is transformed by a changing climate.
“If you don’t have enough of these animals in our care and don’t have enough to extend that for more decades,” Mr. Hurley said, the aquarium will be unable to unlock “the secrets these animals hold.”
But Lori Marino, a neuroscientist at Emory University who studies whale intelligence, said she saw the aquarium’s main incentive as “to keep people entertained.”
While the acquisition would infuse the captive population with more genetic variety and keep it “going a little while longer,” she said, “there is no scientific purpose.” The Georgia Aquarium and the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station in Russia, where the belugas are being held, declined to disclose how much the American aquariums had agreed to pay for the whales.
If the import permit is approved, the belugas will be flown to the United States with a stopover in Belgium. While the whales would be owned by the Georgia Aquarium, their destinations would also include the Shedd in Chicago, the Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut and the Sea World parks in San Antonio, San Diego and Orlando, Fla.
In defending the import initiative, aquarium officials point out that options for acquiring mammals from other marine parks in North America or abroad are limited because it can be hard to prove that the animals were humanely captured.
Marilee Menard, the executive director of the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums, called the imports of belugas “a seminal decision that is strongly supported by the marine mammal community.”
That does not convince Dr. Whitehead, the whale expert in Nova Scotia. In captivity, he said, “many of the processes which are clearly important in the wild can’t flourish, such as the flexible social systems they seem to have, such as the migrations, such as using sounds without having them echoed back at you from concrete a few meters away.”
Other scientists have mixed sentiments, like Robert Michaud, an expert at a conservation group called Gremm in Quebec.
“I can make the case that research on these animals in captivity helps animals in the wild,” said Mr. Michaud, who was hired by the Georgia Aquarium to coordinate research into the beluga populations in the Sea of Okhotsk. “We are still learning things about their biology and behavior.”
But “you won’t find in me a strong defender of captive animals,” he said.
“You are breaking family groups,” he added. “The pool will never be the open ocean.”