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Animals

Controversy over beluga whales import to US

The Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta has applied for an import permit for 18 beluga whales on behalf of a group of marine parks, saying they need the near threatened whales to boost their stocks. But, opposition is mounting.

Georgia Aquarium officials are finding themselves in some hot water over plans to import a group of Beluga whales. The application for a license to import the unique-looking white whales, which originate from Russian Arctic waters, has reopened a debate across the US about the morality of keeping highly intelligent cetaceans, like whales and dolphins, in captivity.

The Georgia Aquarium wants the beluga whales for breeding purposes and research. Scott Higley, one of the managers at Georgia Aquarium, also says his facility performs another important role.

“It's important that we have beluga whales in accredited facilities, like the Georgia Aquarium, so that we can educate the public about Beluga whales,” Higley told DW.

Scott Higley, Georgia Aquarium's Vice President of Marketing and Communications, in one of the facility's offices. (Photo: Michael Scaturro)

Georgia Aquarium's Marketing and Communications head, Scott Higley

Under the plan, the aquarium would own all the animals, but only keep four in its facility in Atlanta. The others would be lent to aquariums around the US. Higley says there's still much to be learned from whales in captivity.

“While we can observe the animals in their natural habitats, and we can say we see what they're doing, we can't really understand why they do what they do,” said Higley.

If the United States' National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grants the aquarium's request, it will mark the first time in almost two decades that wild-caught cetaceans have been imported into an aquarium in the country.

Strong opposition

Lori Marino, a beluga expert at Emory University in Atlanta, says the Georgia Aquarium is not conducting peer-reviewed scientific research at its facility on the belugas it already has – and isn't likely to do so with the new whales that it's planning to acquire.

Marino is just one of many marine biologists who are philosophically against keeping cetaceans in captivity. “We need to know a lot more about belugas,” Marino told DW. “But the way to do it is not to take healthy individuals from their natural habitats, plop them in a tank, and sell tickets for the public to see them.”

Marino believes the Georgia Aquarium and similar institutions are mainly engaging in husbandry research – that is, they want to learn how to breed whales more effectively. This raises moral questions for those who believe whales should chose their own mating partners.

Higley admits Georgia Aquarium needs more whales in order to maintain variety but maintains his institution is looking after the whales' best interests.

This photo taken July 4, 2012, at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, Alaska, shows Dennis Christen of the Georgia Aquarium feed a bottle to a baby beluga calf being rehabilitated at the center. The whale was approximately two days old when it was found in Bristol Bay, Alaska, and separated from its mother. Staff from the Alaska SeaLife Center is receiving help with the whale's care from the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Shedd Aquarium in ChiCago and SeaWord in San Diego. (Foto:Mark Thiessen/AP/dapd)

A young beluga calf is fed by a Georgia Aquarium trainer, after being found alone in the wild

“We try to look at the best potential for social groupings that would be very similar to what they would have in their natural environments,” said Higley. “We are lacking optimum age and sex distribution among the animals currently in our care as well as the variety of genetics we would need in order to be able to sustain the current population for decades to come."

Stir in the media

The pro and anti-captivity sides are engaging in a media debate that has grabbed headlines nationwide. On the issue of beluga whale lifespan, Higley is adamant that animals in captivity are healthy. “The Beluga whales in captivity live as long as their counterparts in the wild do," he told DW.

But Marino and others dispute this. “They don't live longer, they live much shorter lives,” Marino contended. “And, they're dying of diseases.”

Marino says data from the US marine mammal inventory show that whales in captivity have shorter life spans than those in the wild, and that they often die from stress-related diseases, like bleeding ulcers. She also says one of the belugas at Georgia Aquarium was found to have ulcers after it died.

Scientists not in favor of Georgia Aquarium's request are pushing for a complete phase out of cetaceans in captivity. This would mean ending breeding programs, and moving whales and dolphins that can't be released into the wild, into sea pens which more closely resemble their natural habitats.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is expected to make a decision on whether to grant the Georgia Aquarium an import permit by February.

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