Silver Spring, Md. - Passionate statements from aquarium officials and environmental activists alike over the importation of beluga whales resounded in a crowded but quiet meeting room at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Science Center Friday.
The issue at hand was the Atlanta-based Georgia Aquarium's application for a permit to import 18 beluga whales from Russia. While the Georgia Aquarium is seeking to import the whales, they would go to multiple destinations - possibly including several SeaWorld locations as well as Mystic Aquarium, which currently houses four beluga whales, also known as white whales.
The Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 prohibits the "take or import" of marine mammals but includes an exception for animals kept for educational public display or scientific research. NOAA officials held Friday's hearing as part of the process of gathering public comment before making a final decision, which is expected to be issued early next year.
NOAA regulations require only a 30-day public comment period prior to review of such an application, but the comment period for this particular application was extended to 60 days due to increased public interest.
The controversy over the permit request centers around whether these whales are truly being kept for educational purposes, and whether they are being imported in what the Marine Mammal Protection Act defines as a humane manner - or, in the words of the statute, a "method of taking which involves the least possible degree of pain and suffering practicable to the mammal involved."
Naomi Rose, a senior scientist with The Humane Society of the United States, questioned whether the belugas would be transported in a humane manner. Although aquarium officials said that they believed stress associated with capture and transport is short-lived, Rose said her organization disagrees.
"The most likely cause (of death in captive belugas), in my opinion, is chronic stress," she said, citing research conducted at Mystic Aquarium linking transportation and high levels of stress in beluga whales.
The Georgia Aquarium's chief veterinarian, Greg Bossart, sought to emphasize his enterprise's concern for the belugas' welfare and described its medical facilities as one of the largest and most modern aquarium hospitals in the world. Georgia Aquarium's Correll Center includes a surgery suite and a pathology room, along with water quality and diagnostic labs. Bossart also said that the belugas received regular, comprehensive medical exams as well as daily exams from their trainers.
Other objections to the permit request came from scientists and activists who do not consider the exhibits at Georgia Aquarium and SeaWorld parks "educational." Lori Marino, a neuroscientist who studies dolphin and whale intelligence at the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy, contended that no one was actually being educated at these locations.
"Theme parks publish material that is often false and misleading on dolphin and whale intelligence," she charged, adding that she believes these organizations downplay the animals' intelligence to rationalize keeping them in captivity.
Marino also described a course at Georgia Aquarium that was marketed as an "animal behavior" class, but which she regarded as a course in "animal husbandry."
But no shortage of educators lined up to defend the Georgia Aquarium, as school principals, teachers, and university professors from the Atlanta region praised the aquarium's beluga exhibit. They were enthusiastic about the hands-on nature of the aquarium, saying that students learned more by actually observing the animals rather than by listening to a lecture.
"With the aquarium, we can make every teacher's words come to life," declared Brian Davis, vice president of education and training at the Georgia Aquarium.