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Mystic — A proposal to import 18 beluga whales from Russia to a half dozen aquariums and attractions in the United States, including Mystic Aquarium, is being opposed by thousands of animal rights advocates who don't want them taken from the wild.
According to the New York Times, the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta has applied for a federal import permit on behalf of a group of marine parks and aquariums, saying they need the whales for captive breeding efforts, research and education.
Thirty-one belugas, some that are too young to breed and others that are nearing the end of their 35-year life spans, including two in Mystic, are now on display across the country.
Peter Glankoff, the vice president of marketing and public affairs at Mystic Aquarium, said Tuesday that the aquarium does not know yet if it will get any of the animals, as there is a process the consortium of aquariums will go through to decide which will get the belugas.
The aquarium currently has four belugas on long-term loans from other institutions living in its 1-acre Arctic Coast Exhibit. The two females, which have never given birth despite the aquarium's ongoing efforts to breed them, are in their late 20s and early 30s. The two males are younger.
Glankoff said the genetic pool of animals that are now in aquariums across the country is inadequate for breeding purposes.
"The idea is to increase the genetic diversity of the animals we have," he said.
In addition to displaying, studying and caring for the animals in its collection, the aquarium does extensive beluga research in the wild. Executive Vice President for Research and Zoological Operations Tracy Romano and others have been traveling to the Arctic for many years to study wild belugas.
"Mystic Aquarium is renowned for being one of the most responsible institutions in the world for the management, training, research and care of beluga whales," she said.
Like several of the aquariums and marine parks, Mystic Aquarium offers two popular beluga encounter programs in which visitors pay $55 or $145 to get up close with the animals and learn about them.
The New York Times reports that for some 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 U.S. institutions since 1994, including one conceived through artificial insemination, officials say the population needs greater numbers and more genetic diversity to thrive. None have been born at Mystic Aquarium.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration plans to hold a public hearing on the import proposal on Friday in Silver Spring, Md. Glankoff and other aquarium officials plan to attend the hearing. A decision by NOAA is expected early next year.
The Times said 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.
Hal Whitehead, a marine mammal expert at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, said 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."
The Times wrote that Lori Marino, a neuroscientist at Emory University who studies whale intelligence, said she saw the aquariums' 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."
In making its decision NOAA will consider factors such as whether the population of belugas that the 18 came from is endangered, whether they were humanely taken and whether the display of the animals serves an educational purpose.
The Times reported the 18 whales were caught in the Sea of Okhotsk from a robust population of 4,000 that is not seen as endangered. They were herded into pens by a net and now live at a research institution in the Black Sea town of Anapa.
The Times also reported that the Georgia Aquarium and the Utrish Marine Mammal Research Station in Russia, where the belugas are being held, declined to disclose how much the aquariums were paying for the whales.
While the whales would be owned by the Georgia Aquarium, they could also be sent to Mystic Aquarium, Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and Sea World parks in San Antonio, San Diego and Orlando, Fla.